Director: Frank Borzage
Starring: Spencer Tracy Loretta Young, Marjorie Rambeau, Glenda Farrell, Walter Connolly , Arthur Hohl
Questions of morality are swiftly at play in this Borzage classic of depressive love. Man’s Castle is the story of a dreamer, and his forced confrontation with reality. The film begins on a note of fantasy, as Bill (Spencer Tracy), sits on a bench feeding pigeons. He’s dressed in a tuxedo, and his charismatic nature alludes to a man of great wealth. He’s confronted by a whisper of a woman, the beautiful and appropriately tiny, Trina (Loretta Young). A starving and frightened child, he whisks her off and feeds her the meal of her life, only to reveal his suit is nothing but an illusion, and he doesn’t have a dime to his name.
At most, ten minutes into the story, we already have a strong idea of the identity and dreams of the characters. Bill is a dreamer, he cannot and will not be tied down. The depression is almost freeing for him, as the expectations of normal society no longer conform. Even though, one can hardly imagine him conforming to ordinary life, even during a more opportune time, the pressure is alleviated by circumstance. Trina is a flower; fragile and dependent, if it were not for her overcoming strength in face of Bill, and her undying optimism. The illusion that she is, in any way, weak is absurd. The power she gains from her relationship from Bill is mutual, and rather than being defined by him, she allows him to be defined by her. His perceived belittling of her is somewhat off-putting at first, but there is an understanding between the characters that rises above words. Trina understands that Bill is frightened by the idea of being tied down, and the fact that he still remains with her throughout is a testament to the power she holds over him. He respects her in a way that no other man could, he gives her what she wants and needs, often betraying his own ideals and happiness. In a way, his sacrifices are far greater than hers, though both are forced to compromise for their love.
The moral structure of this film, is placed in context of the depression. Though the word is never used, the film is wrapped in it’s shroud. Most of the film takes place in a shanty town, where Bill and Trina live. Most action that exists outside, is dependent on survival or else a test of moral fortitude. The moral compass is defined by a minister character, Ira, who preaches the word of God, and condemns even Bill’s taking flowers as a form of robbery. He is gentle though, and holds a very altruistic view of right and wrong. His world view is that of the film, that one must qualify morality through intent and the greater good. Intention especially seems to be the root of his idea of good and bad, as when he understands that Bill only stole the flower to bring happiness to Trina he is able to forgive him quite easily. Bill’s foil in this regard, is Bragg, who also is in love with Trina, but uses similar crimes and gestures in order to hurt other people.
This all culminates, in Bill’s decision to rob a safe. Despite his pilfering of a flower, he does not believe in robbery, but will do it to bring comfort to Trina. There is a difference in his actions here, versus earlier in the film however. As his actions are not motivated by a desire to make Trina happier, but rather to make his own life easier. It’s his means of escape, and he is “rightfully” punished for it. His degree of wrong, pales greatly compared to that of Bragg, and the punishments for each are appropriate to the crime. In a way, Borzage advocates even murder, as justifiable under the right circumstances; an interesting, if not problematic understanding of the world. Good and Evil exist on a scale, and there is apparently a line one can cross that though presented clearly in the film, does not translate quite as well to real world situations.
The real thrust, and reason to watch the film however, is the beautiful romance that blossoms between the characters. Borzage soft focus and use of light create a unique world where true love is possible, and even the pain of reality cannot truly penetrate the gloss of their world. If Borzage had one talent, it was capturing the interior romance and affection of his characters and reflecting it through their exterior world. One cannot help being swept away by Borzage’s taste for beauty, and the glimmer of optimism that love not only exists, but can make the world a more beautiful place.
By Justine Smith