Posted by Moira Finnie on August 27, 2008
There’s something about Frank Borzage movies. While Hollywood in the studio era was awash in films that seemed to glorify love, physical beauty and, (before the code at least), regarded sexual union as the epitome of the human experience, the old town couldn’t quite turn the Borzage “product” into the standard issue pop culture version of “love.”
Love, Hollywood-style was often a strange amalgam of Victorian lace, conjugal bliss and forbidden fruit, laced with a large dose of voyeurism. The obstinate, almost mystical belief of this film pioneer in the invisible ties that bind and the movies he made fascinate me, even if his hard-to-find films are sometimes difficult to find. Borzage, who grew up in Salt Lake City as one of fourteen children in a hardworking family of Swiss-Italian immigrants, became an actor who eventually began directing movies under the aegis of Thomas Ince in the teens. Creating the original version of Humoresque from Fannie Hurst‘s story in 1920, he went on to create many still powerful silent films, (only a portion of the which still exist), and was awarded the first Academy Award for Direction for Seventh Heaven (1927), as well as one for the Depression era story of Bad Girl (1931). While he could not have known it at the time, in a sense, Man’s Castle marked the beginning of Borzage‘s journeyman stage in his career, when, wandering from Columbia, where he arranged to produce this film independently, he would work at Universal, Warner Brothers, M.G.M. and Paramount throughout the rest of his career, with varying degrees of artistic success.
Wherever he worked, the movies of director Borzage, who reveled in a deeply felt romanticism that celebrated the ability of the connections between human beings to transcend the temporal world, Hollywood had an original. Working over five decades in countless films, he didn’t always succeed in translating his vision to the screen perfectly, but, though in many cases I reject the auteurist theory, his movies do have an individual stamp.
This coming Sunday, Aug. 31st, TCM will be broadcasting one of the rarest films of the sound era, Man’s Castle (1933). As part of the Summer Under the Stars day devoted to the work of Spencer Tracy, this movie was directed by the gifted Borzage, whose work has begun to be appreciated once again, in recent years. It is one of those films–long out of circulation, except in rarely shown prints at film archives and museums, whose storied obscurity might make us expect more than we should when encountering the movie. If you have an opportunity to catch this broadcast, I hope that you might give it a chance–even if, as several friends have expressed to me, you initially find yourself rejecting Man’s Castle (1933). Give it time, the film may grow on you.
A simple story of a “bindle-stiff”, (bum to you and me) played by a young Spencer Tracy.
To our 21st century ears, we might be tempted to cringe when witnessing these sequences, but if you stay with the film, you’ll see how much Loretta Young‘s character, whose frank love for her protector is continually expressed as acceptance of his quirks eventually emerges, not as a victim, but as the beat of Tracy’s heart, a reason to live for someone outside himself, and, as such, a strong, vibrant force to be feared by the tough guy, who sees attachment to anyone or anything outside himself as a sign of weakness. Tracy‘s character, who constantly gazes out at the patch of blue sky seen through the small skylight that is rigged over their bed in the shanty, claims that “When you’re alive, you wanna hang on your hunk o’ blue. That’s all everybody’s got in the world.” Only then does he begin to notice the seraphically beautiful “hunk o’ blue” in her eyes–and in her.
The love-hate relationship that forms between Bill and Trina is reminiscent of Ferenc Molnár‘s Liliom (1930), which Borzage filmed with Charles Farrell and Rose Hobart, (and which would be filmed again by Fritz Lang in 1934.). As the story progresses, the character of Trina (Loretta Young) becomes the stronger of the two. While seemingly passive and compliant, as her love grows, she asks for neither fidelity nor material security, haunted only by the plaintive train whistle that calls to Bill, who tells her, “[d]on’t get yourself in too deep. I’m liable to be all steam about you today and washed up tomorrow.” Quietly telling Bill that she’s pregnant, she calms him by explaining, in a matter-of-fact way that seems to surprise her a bit too, “I’m not afraid anymore. You can never leave me now, even if you go away, I’ve got you now. You’re a prisoner inside of me.” She buries her face in his shoulder, but the next shot we see is of Bill almost leaving her, about to hop a train to another spot. Hearing the train whistle at the same time as Trina, he pauses, gazes back, and jumps off the train to return to her. Eventually, the pair leave their cozy little shack, realizing that the only security they can have in this world is each other. Sentimental? Perhaps, but I think that the emotion is as real now as in that dark year of 1933.
In this film, Borzage, a director who is sometimes mistakenly seen as a “romanticist” without a political or social conscience, paints a very dark canvas in Man’s Castle without ever mentioning the Depression by name. Throughout his career, the director told effective personal stories set against the background of real poverty, war and oppression. In Man’s Castle he takes us on a tour of a shantytown, which looked like the real life “Hoovervilles” that sprang up around the country during the worst years of the Depression. We visit a re-creation of such a community on the banks of New York’s East River, recreated on the soundstage by designer Stephen Goosson in miniature shacks made of sheet metal and planks to resemble sixty hovels, with children and dwarves occupying them to increase the effect of a vast, teeming wasteland. Cinematographer Joseph August used false perspectives , a miniaturized elevated train and Manhattan skyline in the background to recreate the desired effect on camera, which becomes, in the diffused light used and under the spell cast by the characters created by such fine character actors as Walter Connolly and Marjorie Rambeau, a tattered wonderland.) he introduces us to a brutal world of 12 million unemployed, where pigeons eat but people starve. Yet, instead of focusing his story in Man’s Castle on any possible political solutions or understandable outrage, he tells the story of two individuals riding above the chaos of the world around them, creating a separate world within the squalor and meanness that almost envelops them. Borzage’s film doesn’t glorify their splendid solitude as a couple, encased in a smug love that excludes all others. He actually celebrates the tentative nature of their situation, and as the story progresses, they become more vulnerable and their experience, superficially becomes more transitory.
Man’s Castle’ has a power that sneaks up on you. Of the work of Borzage that I’ve seen, it reminded me most of the seemingly forgotten Little Man, What Now? (1934) the Margaret Sullavan-Douglass Montgomery film depicting the effect on a hapless young couple of the disintegration of post war Germany as the Weimar Republic fell apart.
The delicate fabric of their relationship is constantly strained in a George Grosz world peopled by angry working class polemicists and grotesque authoritarian bullies. “Nothing very wrong happens to the peaceful man,” is the hopeful, naive statement of the faun-like Douglass Montgomery in this film, and his belief is continuously proven hollow by the continued attempts of the world to intrude on the life he and Sullavan try to carve out of their small corner of a brutal society.
Man’s Castle is a small story, in remarkable contrast to an astounding blend of genres found in the wondrously romantic, but little seen History Is Made At Night (1937), which features Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur at their most appealing. The latter film is also enhanced by a remarkable penultimate performance from the tragic Colin Clive as a wealthy man whose insane, all-consuming love for Arthur is unrequited. Despite the lack of likability of Clive‘s character, the viewer is left feeling more compassion for this tormented villain than one might have felt for a stock figure in the hands of another director.
Man’s Castle does share some of the haunting power of Strange Cargo (1940), which depicted a misguided attempt to escape from a Devil’s Island by a motley crew that includes Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, a sad, manipulative Peter Lorr, e and an intriguing, Christ-like figure played by Ian Hunter. In one of the best pre-WWII films, the still effective synthesis of ideas, history and story in Borzage’s The Mortal Storm (1940), a Borzagean couple, Margaret Sullavan (a great favorite of Borzage‘s in the ’30s) and James Stewart find themselves sheltered within each other in Nazi Germany.
The Mortal Storm (1940), which helped the Nazis decide to ban all American films after it premiered, shows how the rise of fascism affects one family (in an unnamed but obvious Germany), led by the father (Frank Morgan, in what may be his best dramatic performance), but also pauses to show how the victimizers, (Robert Young, in one his better roles as an eager Nazi who is consumed by the path he has chosen) are all dehumanized by their experience. Only the just dead escape completely from the nightmare. Yet, all the participants in the story are treated with remarkable compassion in this film, with several scenes of brutalization reserved to demonstrate the depths of degradation experienced in those who abandoned their humanity.
But that’s the thing about Borzage. Noted for his romanticism, his movies aren’t all sappy hearts and flowers. As a matter of fact, placing his heroes, heroines, the unloved and the unconscious in his movies in settings such as the sewers of Paris, a restaurant kitchen, a house of assignation, or a boat adrift on a stagnant sea, glamor is usually given short shrift in a Borzage film.
Each of the best of them try to give the viewer some sense of the internal life of their characters, and the way that a state of mind, especially if one loves, can transcend the world around them.
That is what Man’s Castle offers us, along with a chance to be reminded of the gifts of two performers whose presence in movies, as familiar as they may seem, is perhaps more complex than we know. It also gives us a chance to see two actors at their early peak, when their still emerging ability shone through the persona that they would later adopt, allowing both of them to achieve a lasting success in Hollywood. Yet, at this stage, both were quite interesting, undomesticated figures.
We think we know Spencer Tracy, the leonine, naturalistic actor who played so winningly opposite Katharine Hepburn in nine films and became an icon in such films as The Last Hurrah (1957) Inherit the Wind (1960), and Judgment at Nuremberg (1962). Yet, as often occurs to me when viewing this talented man’s very early films, he was a fairly prickly character, who sometimes seemed inspired and other times quite lost in the movies of the early ’30s as he honed his skills. Fortunately, as I’ve recently learned, the author of one of the best film biographies of the last 15 years, (James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters), James Curtis , is reportedly about to publish a major biography of Tracy. I hope that he will do justice to the evolution of this actor’s work on film, most of which was in the future for him at the time of Man’s Castle.
Mention Loretta Young to others today and you might be met with comments about “a saccharine goody two-shoes” or “lovely, but…”, all of which stem from her later Hollywood persona as a perfectly groomed woman with rather fixed ideas, a strong sense of her religion, (which sometimes earned her the tag of a “professional Catholic”, despite her real charitable contributions), as well as the sad circumstances surrounding the birth of her and Clark Gable’s daughter Judy in the mid-’30s, and her pose as the girl’s adopted mother in an effort to save her career, (Young was a financial mainstay of her family), protect Gable‘s stardom, and to prevent the child from bearing the then real stigma of illegitimacy. This unfair evaluation of Young may have been cemented by the powerful impression left by such highly entertaining yet somewhat strait-laced films as The Bishop’s Wife, Come to the Stable, and her successful long time television program in the ’50s, featuring her in a succession of roles each week and all introduced by the beautifully dressed lady herself. Thanks to TCM, and Mick LaSalle, the author of Complicated Women (MacMillan), who brought to light the nuanced roles played by actresses in the period between the dawn of the talkies and the imposition of the Production Code in July, 1934 we have been able to learn to appreciate another, more human side of Loretta Young. As she demonstrated in the range of films made in around the same time as Man’s Castle, in Taxi, Heroes For Sale, Employee’s Entrance, Life Begins, Zoo in Budapest and Midnight Mary, she blended a luminous, otherworldly and fragile beauty with a strength of character that fills these films with a memorable, deeply feminine vitality that still jumps off the screen in her marvelous performances.
Offscreen, Loretta Young, who fortunately for us, lived long enough to have critics and audiences begin to rediscover her early films, gave slightly contradictory impressions about her work in Man’s Castle. At one time she said of her part, which she played at twenty, “I played a little dodo.” On other occasions, she was more generous, letting down her guard about this period of her life “That Frank Borzage had a way with actors. He made you believe your part and this intensity came over on the screen. The story was a trifle but we loved it. I proved I could really act with that one.” Perhaps Young’s mixed feelings about the role may have been understandable. As Jeanine Basinger points out in one of the more interesting chapters of her book The Star Machine, (Knopf), Young‘s abilities as an actress, producer, businesswoman and a groundbreaking individual have yet to receive their full due from the general public. Sadly for the young actress, during the production, the 33 year old Tracy and Young became deeply involved, which was complicated by the fact of Mr. Tracy‘s marriage and family, his post-production binge drinking, as well as the intense interest of the press in their relationship. On top of these pressures, both were practicing Roman Catholics. Unlike the ethereal pair in the movie, who discover their true home is in one another, Tracy and Young separated for good some time later.
While their off-set liaison is only a sidelight of the film, the intimate rapport that the two actors demonstrate throughout the film, with Tracy, after chiding her, shaking her head of curls gently with hand and laughing, and exchanges of smiling glances and the whispered comments that one leans into the other that exclude the viewer, reinforcing the sense of closeness between the leads, as they create their separate world apart from the degradation around them.
The film was subjected to numerous cuts from the production code over the years, though it was remarkably frank in its depiction of the out of wedlock loving arrangement arrived at by the leading characters, the Young character’s pregnancy, as well as the depiction (very briefly) of nudity and, in a deft, unobjectionable moment that says volumes about their relationship, Loretta Young‘s character explains as she lovingly irons a shirt for him that Bill “is the cleanest man” she knows, adding that “he don’t like anything touching his skin not to be clean”. Still, in the late ’30s, when Columbia reissued the film, the seventh reel wedding scene between Tracy and Young that took place after she became pregnant, was hamfistedly inserted near the beginning of the movie. Hopefully, the print that TCM has obtained will have as few cuts as possible and will be a good, if not pristine print.
The month of September is rife with Borzage movies!
TCM has several other Frank Borzage films on tap for September, including two movies as part of Kay Francis month on TCM: Living on Velvet (1935) (on 9/4/08), and Stranded (1935) (on 9/25/08) in which Kay looks for love with George Brent, (who is much more alert than usual). The first film is set in a lost generation atmosphere and the second she appears as a Traveler’s Aid Society worker.
An evening of Borzage films is set for Friday, 9/12/08. You can see an overview of that night’s programming here.
First up for that Friday is Three Comrades (1938), starring Borzage‘s muse of the sound portion of his career, the enchanting Margaret Sullavan.The only film to show a touch of F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s attempts to write screenplays in its tale of post WWI comrades Franchot Tone, Robert Young and rising star Robert Young.
Next up that Friday is Secrets (1933), a rarely seen film featuring Leslie Howard at the beginning of his stardom and Mary Pickford at the end of hers, (this was her last film). It is one part romance, (natch), and one part Western, telling the story of California ranchers, (yes, you read that correctly. Not a subject you automatically think of when you read the names of Howard and Pickford, is it?). Sounds curiously intriguing to me.
Lastly, there is one of the attempts of Warner Brothers to put Borzage (a square peg) into one of their profitable round holes in Shipmates Forever (1935), a musical with Dick Powell & Ruby Keeler.
You might think it impossible to slip any of Borzage‘s metaphysical musings into such a script, but watch Powell and Keeler‘s evolving love. Their relationship is much more delicately handled than usual, and there are moments of reflection along with the razzmatazz of the period musical, especially as it dawns on Powell that there might be more to life than his own wants and desires.
Sept. 21st at 8am brings Stage Door Canteen (1943): one of the best of the all star extravaganzas saluting the troops and the stars who served them at the enlisted men’s outpost in major cities. Notable for the only time that Katharine Cornell appeared in a movie, during a brief scene in which she shares a few lines from Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene with a young soldier (played by Lon McCallister) while handing out oranges to the GIs.
Sept. 29th at 6pm you can see Frank Borzage playing a silent film director in one of his last jobs of his long career in the Kim Novak-Jeff Chandler film based on the life of the legendary actress of stage and very early screen, Jeanne Eagels (1957). (In real life, Borzage never directed Eagels).
Basinger, Jeanine, The Star Machine, Knopf, 2007.
Special thanks to Fernando in Chile and Christine in France, my farflung friends overseas, who have so generously shared their copies of Frank Borzage films with me, particularly Man’s Castle (1933) and Little Man, What Now? (1934)
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