Frank Borzage’s ‘Man’s Castle’: The Rediscovery of a Depression-Era Masterpiece
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Author: Richard Brody
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The New Yorker

For decades, I’ve cherished the 1933 comedy-drama “Man’s Castle” as a gem of classic Hollywood, and one that succeeds in uniting rare romantic refinement and harsh, Depression-scarred candor. It’s set mainly in a shantytown under a New York bridge, whose inhabitants include Bill (Spencer Tracy), a hard-nosed wanderer with boundless chutzpah, and Trina (Loretta Young), a starving yet steadfast ingénue to whom he gives shelter. (Trina and Bill quickly become a couple, and the movie’s central question is whether Bill, whose wanderlust is stoked by the sound of a train whistle, will stay put with Trina or hop a freight without her.) The movie balances a sharply etched view of poverty in the shadow of wealth with an attentiveness to the personalities and foibles of the shantytown dwellers. The keen wit and wry antics of the film’s director, Frank Borzage, match a deeply sympathetic tenderness for the characters’ strivings and vulnerabilities; “Man’s Castle” offers a vast vision of exaltation and degradation, and of the wild daring, even heroism, that is born of desperate circumstances.

However, the sixty-nine-minute film that I’ve been enjoying, recorded from a TCM broadcast long ago, is a drastic abridgment of the original, edited down and reissued by Columbia Pictures in 1938. The studio wanted to rerelease the old picture to take advantage of Tracy’s burgeoning stardom, and therefore sought to bring it into line with the moral strictures of the Hays Code, a doctrine of self-censorship that Hollywood had adopted to ward off the threat of actual censorship. (The code was published in 1930, but the studios didn’t enforce it strictly until 1934, the year after “Man’s Castle” came out.) In all, about eight minutes of risqué plot points and dialogue were cut, and my love of thmovie has ben accompanied by tantalized curiosity about what was missing.

Now, thanks to the diligent detective work of Rita Belda, an executive at Sony (the company that eventually bought Columbia), a seventy-eight-minute restoration of “Man’s Castle” has been painstakingly assembled, bringing the film close to the version that was originally released. It will be screened at moma from April 18th to 24th along with a mini-retrospective of other recently restored works from the long career of Borzage, whose films are among the most original and thematically complex ones of classic Hollywood. (Belda will be on hand April 20th to discuss the restoration.) Even truncated and bowdlerized, “Man’s Castle” is a classic, but the restoration emphasizes all the more strongly the depth and power of Borzage’s vision—and the wit and style with which he brings it to light. The moma series as a whole offers viewers a chance to deepen their appreciation of a neglected filmmaker’s daring ideas.

Borzage’s very name is a sort of cinephile password—in the way that the pronunciation of “Houston Street” is for New Yorkers. His name is pronounced “bor-zay-ghy,” and the fact that it needs mentioning suggests that his name is not mentioned often enough. Born in Utah in 1894, to an Italian father and a Swiss mother, he started out as an actor and began to direct in 1913 (yes, as a teen-ager). He flourished in the silent era, and won the first ever Academy Award for Best Director, in 1929, for “7th Heaven” (a silent movie, to which synchronized music and sound effects, but no dialogue, were added). Three years later, having made the leap to talking pictures, he won again, for “Bad Girl.” Yet, though his career lasted nearly to his death, in 1962, he never again figured in the Oscars race. And if I needed to cite one movie that exemplifies his artistry and his world view, “Man’s Castle” would be it.

For starters, there’s greatness in the playful but poignant touches through which Borzage tells the story. The very first scene is a meet-cute of misery: on a park bench, Bill, duded up in a tuxedo and a top hat, is feeding popcorn to pigeons; sitting next to him, Trina tries to find the courage to say that she hasn’t eaten in two days and could really use some popcorn herself. Instead, Bill, posing as a rich man, takes her to a fancy restaurant, only to reveal—after she eats a lavish dinner—that he has no money to pay for it. (He’s daring enough to get away with it, making a public scene with a sharply political point—and, of course, the scene of righteous indignation is, above all, Borzage’s.) Bill’s suit, it turns out, has an illuminated advertisement embedded in its shirtfront. It’s a kind of novelty sandwich board, with which Bill earns a bit of money by parading up and down the streets advertising a brand of coffee.

The sequence is filled with false clues and strange incongruities, but it’s only the first of many such twists that crop up throughout the movie. Bill’s romantic dilemma is put on decisive display by his miscues in a sandlot baseball game, and, later, a burglar gets distracted playing with toys made by the company he’s stealing from. In fact, such moments are a hallmark of Borzage’s work. His direction is the art of indirection, something borne out by other films in the moma retrospective. The Oscar-winning “Bad Girl” (1931)—the drama of a young couple whose married life is strained by poverty, secrecy, and mismatched dreams—opens with a wedding scene that turns out to be merely a fashion show. “History Is Made at Night” (1937), a rapturous romantic comedy of unlikely encounters and unlikelier reunions, involves an elaborately nested set of ruses: a man rescues a woman from sexual assault by rushing into a hotel room pretending to be a thief; afterward, returning the “stolen” items to her, he makes like a rich man, taking her to dinner at a fancy restaurant where he eventually turns out to be no patron but, rather, the headwaiter. Such indirections—involving gender, family, sex, and love—are more than mere whimsy. They embody Borzage’s vision of a far more cosmic paradox: his films are mainly romances, but they’re caustic and melancholy, suffused with pain and speeding toward doom.

For Borzage, the greatest indirection is love. In his world view, doomed romanticism isn’t an oxymoron but a tautology: to experience love deep within one’s bones comes at the cost of one’s earthly comforts and worldly aspirations, even one’s life. Love in his films is frankly sexual: one of the first things that happens at the shantytown in “Man’s Castle” is that Bill and Trina go skinny-dipping together in the river, and one of the censored moments that has been restored shows their naked bodies in close contact. Strikingly, Borzage’s fervent lustiness is matched by a passionate Christianity. One character in “Man’s Castle” is a former minister now working as a night watchman, and one of the restored scenes shows Bill reading aloud to Trina from this man’s Bible. (The reading features steamy passages from the Song of Songs—presumably the reason that the scene got cut.)

Even when religion is less explicitly invoked, Borzage’s films are marked by a sense of spiritual devotion, in which romantic desire isn’t a contradiction of the spiritual but an incarnation of it—not least because, for Borzage, lust and consummation are inseparable from sacrifice and torment. Borzage presents sex with a candor rare in Hollywood at the time—an out-of-wedlock pregnancy in “Man’s Castle,” impulsive premarital sex in “Bad Girl”—but he films it with a glow of sacralizing purity. He’s the master of instantly kindled lust, as in a majestic, moonstruck scene of love at first sight in the melodrama “Living on Velvet” (1935), but agonies are built into these carnal extremes, which is what grants them a kind of innocence. Borzage is an artist of sublime agony. He excels in closeups of characters in a state of spiritual exaltation, which he tends to emphasize with expressive, unnatural lighting, the actors’ bodies sunk in shadow but their faces brightly lit as if the illumination were coming from within. The expressions on their faces present a pleasure that closely resembles pain.

Such happy endings as Borzage grants his lovers are often bitterly ironic ones—tacked-on sequences that implausibly bring characters back from certain death. The end of “Living on Velvet” is so unreal as to seem posthumous; “History Is Made at Night” is a transatlantic romance that essentially gives the wreck of the Titanic a happy ending. “Moonrise” (1948), a violence-riddled romantic noir also playing at moma, adds to an implausibly miraculous survival a legalistic ending that, in the manner of “Crime and Punishment,” will separate its young lovers for years. Even when Borzage’s endings aren’t a matter of life and death, they’re a matter of renunciation. “Man’s Castle” ends with a transcendent, cosmic image—a sublime illusion achieved with a camera rising high—but meanwhile Bill and Trina are giving up their big dreams and preparing for a film-noir-ful of new troubles. “Bad Girl” ends with a crushing of big plans and a seeming life sentence of poverty; the ostensibly happy endings of a pair of Borzage’s great silent films, “The Circle” and “Lazybones” (both 1925), are built upon mountains of misery.

The unity of Borzage’s vision is all the more remarkable for having been realized within the confines of the studio system—and for his having no overt hand in his films’ scripts. (He received only four writing credits, all for films made in 1916.) Still, in many of his great films, including “Man’s Castle,” “Bad Girl,” and “Lazybones,” Borzage made sure that he got the last word—as producer, the person to whom the screenwriters reported. Seeing a bunch of Borzage films in a short period of time brings to the fore some themes that, noticeable and disturbing as they are in any one movie, emerge as the center of the director’s troubled and troubling world view. At the heart of this vision is women’s lot in life and its biological essence, pregnancy, and the way that men often treat children as unwanted constraints and burdens.

Both “Man’s Castle” and “Bad Girl” pivot on pregnancy. In “Man’s Castle,” Trina becomes pregnant, bringing such trouble to her relationship with Bill that she tells him that the unborn baby is hers alone and needn’t involve him at all. (Another newly restored scene features a woman with whom Bill is having an affair hinting that Trina can get an abortion: “That jam you’re in can be fixed,” she says. “There’s hardly anything money won’t fix.”) In the earlier film, a couple’s lives are thrown out of whack less by the woman’s pregnancy than by her fear of disclosing it to her husband, a poor but ambitious man who wants no children. In “Lazybones,” a secret maintained for years about the parentage of an adopted child destroys the lives of two neighboring rural families—making both a cruel mockery and a sacred sacrifice of the movie’s modestly happy ending.

Another dominant aspect of Borzage’s work is the depiction of male harassment of and violence against women as a direly epidemic fact of life. The semi-comedic tone of the films, this theme notwithstanding, suggests all the more just how commonplace such horrors are, and the sort of ordinary heroism it costs women to bear them with equanimity. In “Man’s Castle,” Bill, with his sharp talk, unleashes a long but unbroken skein of threats on Trina—such as to sock her on the chin, to knock out her teeth—that are meant to come off as affectionate: as they lovingly embrace, he pokes her sharply in the side and asks what she’d do if he punched her hard. (To a neighbor, Trina laughingly shows off bruises received at Bill’s hands, saying that he “doesn’t know his own strength.”) In “Bad Girl,” also set in New York, the sexual harassment endured by women at work and in the streets is so relentless that when the titular protagonist meets one man who doesn’t harass her, she’s suspicious of his motives (and then yearns to marry him). In “History Is Made at Night,” violence is part of a jilted husband’s scheme to deny his wife a divorce; in “The Circle,” a jilted husband saves his marriage by kidnapping his wife.

Perhaps no director but Kenji Mizoguchi—whose career, running from 1923 to 1956, was roughly contemporaneous with Borzage’s—filmed so insistently the social burdens, pressures, and constraints endured by women, whether single or married or widowed, employed or not, rural or urban, poor or middle-class or rich. It’s here that Borzage manages to fuse his social vision with his religious one. The freedom of women is narrowed not only by men (and the social and political order established by men) but also by their own propensity for love—even the love of men who bear doom in their very being. For Borzage, the original sin of mankind—of male-kind, rather—is violence, and violence is inseparable from the ordinary run of daily activity at all levels of society. The minister turned watchman in “Man’s Castle” has to carry a gun to eke out his meagre living. Bill, in the attempt to earn his pittance, alternately takes a physical beating (during one howlingly outrageous day as a process server) and administers one. The protagonist’s husband in “Bad Girl” must face the brutality of a boxing ring in order to make ends meet.

Men’s original sin also involves the violence of war, as in the Oscar-winning “7th Heaven,” a drama involving the First World War, and in “No Greater Glory” (1934), another film in the moma series. This is a sort of post-First World War “Lord of the Flies” in which boys in a Budapest neighborhood mimic the militarism of their elders in the plan to go to “war” to defend a vacant lot that’s the area’s one playground. “Moonrise” shows how a culture of violence passed down from father to son in a small Virginia town produces bullying abuses of power at a civic level. (The violence endured by Black people in such a town, where the Confederacy is still remembered fondly, finds expression in subplots involving a Black man named Mose Jackson, played by Rex Ingram, who lives as a hermit in a shack on an abandoned estate on the outskirts of town.)

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