Year: 1933

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

Cast: Spencer Tracy, Loretta Young, Walter Connolly, Marjorie Rambeau, Glenda Farrell

I FINALLY got this movie up and loaded on to YouTube. So now nobody has any excuse. Everyone can watch this movie. I decided since it’s up there now, I might as well make it the YouTube Movie of the Week, to advertise the fact that it’s now happily available.

I have already written so much on this movie, so I figured I’d just link to some previous posts on the site…

https://obscureclassics.wordpress.com/2008/04/24/heroines-in-film-trina-from-mans-castle/

https://obscureclassics.wordpress.com/2008/02/18/mans-castle-frank-borzage-1933/

And as soon as you’ve watched it, go to our podcasts page and take a listen to our Man’s Castle podcast.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7

Direct Download

Year: 1934

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Starring: Aline MacMahon, Ann Dvorak, Preston Foster, Lyle Talbot, Glenda Farrell

I’m a fan of so many things in Heat Lightning. Ann Dvorak, Mervyn LeRoy, Glenda Farrell, Aline MacMahon. It’s a really interesting B-picture from the late pre-code era. Going in, it’s not really clear what this movie is about. Olga (MacMahon) and her little sister Myra (Dvorak) run a service station in the middle of nowhere. Olga loves it, Myra doesn’t. So where exactly is this going? Will it be a romance about Myra meeting a passer through and finding her way out? Will it be a love story about Olga falling in love with a passer through and realizing life isn’t so great away from the real world? Hell, maybe it will be a murder mystery set in the middle of nowhere. Well… actually… that last one might not be too far off.

Customers start arriving to stay for the night to provide and interesting ensemble cast to add a little bulk to the story. Preston Foster is a criminal on the run who knows Olga from long ago. The wonderful Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly are two wealthy gold digger wives being transported by their chauffeur Frank McHugh, who seems to be trying to resist being seduce by the ladies.

There’s obviously a story somewhere here. Foster wants to stick around to try to steal the rich wives’ jewels. Myra wants to sneak out to go to a dance with her boyfriend. Olga tries to resist her romantic feelings for Foster, who’s considering using her for his heist. There’s a lot going on plot wise. None of it really fully develops, even in the end when one big thing happens.

That doesn’t mean the movie’s not good though. Despite the wobbly plot, Heat Lightning has the gift of a good ensemble of interesting characters. The sister relationship between Olga and Myra is really interesting to watch. It’s as though we’re simply dropped into the middle of it for awhile to observe. Olga’s relationship with Foster is pretty interesting to watch as well. We never know for certain the extent of Foster’s feeling for Olga, and we’re never told for sure. That’s left up to the viewer to decide. Probably the most fun part of the film is the relationship between Farrell, Donnelly, and McHugh. The three of them together are really funny, and give this film a lot of much needed levity.

MacMahon was a really fantastic actress, and she gets the chance to shine here. Her performance is without a doubt the best part of the movie. It’s a quiet, understate performance and it’s perfect. Dvorak is good with what she has, but she’s completely underused (and probably misused) in this film. Dvorak could really rev it up. When given the chance, she was a live wire, one of the most amazing things about pre-code, but she’s just not used properly here.

Heat Lightning is a strange little movie, but if you go into it looking more for the characters than the plot, you’ll get a solid experience.

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1933

Director: Frank Borzage

Cast: Spencer Tracy, Loretta Young, Glenda Farrell, Marjorie Rambeau, Walter Connolly

This very old movie deals with timeless themes. Themes just as relevant today as they were 75 years ago when this film was released.

The story follows a young woman named Trina played by Loretta Young who has been out of work for a year. In her relatively ineffective attempts to find food and survive she encounters a peculiar man named Bill. His influence has a lasting effect on her.

It is a very simple movie really, but it transcends its own simplicity and actually ends up being more akin to a masterpiece thanks primarily to three major successes.

First, of course, is the script. This is a no nonsense script that was expertly created. It doesn’t attempt to be an epic or anything more then just a well crafted slice of life filled with very well written dialogue. A slice of life with a simple surface but deep explorations into humanity under the surface as well.

This dialogue wouldn’t mean much without the talents of some very fine actors. Both Loretta Young and Spencer Tracy bring these characters to life, effortlessly surmounting the 75 year old handicap that this movie has to struggle against to reach modern audiences. This films second major success is the excellent acting and timeless portrayals.

Lets start with Spencer Tracy. Bill is a character that is both self-assured and self-sufficient despite hard economic times. He is pure confidence and masculinity. He could also be considered immature and self-serving, but under the bravado is a lot of humanity. He doesn’t answer to anybody and he takes care of not only himself but looks out for those around him, despite the economic hardships of the era. He is tough, but at heart a kind person, a person who arguably has ran from life’s harsher realities and has been hardened by them simultaneously. At the same time he is still optimistic no matter how harsh the times have become, in fact he is always staring at the sky and listening to the passing trains, hoping for the best not only for himself but for those around him.

Spencer Tracy plays Bill masterfully. Watching him swagger around from scene to scene is delightful. Despite Bill’s big shoes, Spencer Tracy does a flawless job filling them and the end result is a perfectly played character that carries the film.

Well, maybe not carries the film. Loretta Young equally deserves the credit. Without her part and the understated manner in which she plays it the film would be nothing. Loretta Young, at just 20 years of age proves she is a force to be reckoned with as she plays this unforgettable character. Trina is a very interesting blend of wisdom, naivety and helplessness. She is completely dependent on Bill, and she is smart enough to let him be himself, to let him be his own man and not trap him. She knows that beggars can’t be choosers and she is quite literally a beggar. When he puts her down, disregards her and strays away she doesn’t judge, nor does she try to tame him. She is dependent on him and wise enough to know that attempts to shackle him would only drive him away. Trina is a pleasure to watch. In a world full of depression both emotionally and economically, she finds happiness in the little things and is a breath of fresh air in comparison to so many who both then and now seem plagued with pessimism. One wonders just how calculated her interactions with Bill are as the movie unfolds. Speculation concerning that question is part of what makes the film engaging and fascinating.

The third major success of Man’s Castle is the completely timeless theme which I hinted at earlier. This is a film as relevant now as it was then and the themes touched on will be relevant hundreds of years from now as well. Man’s Castle is largely about a man’s desire to roam about and be free. Man’s Castle is about the age old fear of commitment, as old as the male gender itself. As long as there are relationships involving men there will be the desire to avoid what is perceived as the bondage that comes with commitment and fidelity that is so foreign to the natural state of masculinity. This film portrays that struggle and the fear and the potential joy associated with giving in and embracing committed love.

This movie is also about finding happiness in reality. Life is unlikely to be as satisfying as the dreams of youth. One of the secrets to happiness it seems is finding satisfaction despite depressing circumstances. Certainly in the early 1930s there were plenty who did not learn that lesson and thankfully plenty who did. Man’s Castle isn’t the only story to teach us that happiness has more to do with attitude then circumstances, but it certainly is one of the more entertaining stories to teach that very valuable moral.

By Greg Dickson

Year: 1934

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Starring: Aline MacMahon, Ann Dvorak, Preston Foster, Lyle Talbot, Glenda Farrell

I’ve watched this film twice in the last month. The first time I saw it I was not too impressed. I felt the film never seemed to lift itself off the ground that it was lifeless in the first half and only slightly improves in the second half. After a second viewing of the film I have to say that while this is not classic in the sense of The Petrified Forest, which it is sometimes compared too at least in setting, Heat Lightening is an entertaining film with a stand out performance by Aline MacMahon, an almost forgotten actress today.

This 1934 Warner Brothers “B” movie involves two sisters, Myra (Ann Dorvak) and Olga (Alice MacMahon) who run a gas station/restaurant/rest stop in the California desert. This is where the entire film takes place and where the similarities to The Petrified Forest come from. But the films are entirely different. The Petrified Forest, made two years later, in 1936, had loftier goals commenting on capitalism, class distinction, and race. Heat Lightening just tells a good story.

The movie opens with director Mervyn LeRoy panning his camera right, across the desert and coming upon the rest stop run by the two sisters. This opening panning shot reminded me of D.W. Griffith who frequently used the pan shot to open and close many of his films such as The Girl and Her Trust. The films start on a comical bent with the first customers to arrive, Herbert (the great Edgar Kennedy famous for his slow burn in many Laurel & Hardy films) and his domineering wife Gladys (Jane Darwell). Their car is over heated and Herbert is seen pushing the car into the station. Olga, the older and overall wearing mechanic of the two sisters, takes care of the car while the couple cool off with a couple of sodas. They soon take off and are never seen again. Other than some dated comical relief and the need to pad a film that barely runs a little over an hour they serve no purpose and could have easily been cut from the film.

The two sisters have been running the rest stop for a couple of years now and while Olga is happy with this quiet reclusive life where nothing much happens, Myra, younger, is restless and wants to go places and experience life. Like tonight she is looking to go out with Steve a local lothario who Olga, being the more experienced and over protective sister, disapproves of. “You put a man and a woman together and it gets complicated.” Olga tells her younger naïve sister.

Another car pulls in this time with two small time crooks, George (Preston Foster) and Jeff (Lyle Talbot). They’re on the run after recently robbing a bank where George shot and killed two of the banks employees. George soon recognizes Olga as an old girlfriend from some years ago back in Oklahoma. Suspicious of what he’s doing here she tells him she’s through with her previous life and is now making an honest living, something he would not know anything about.

Outside more customers arrive. This time its two rich women (Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly) driven by their Chauffeur (Frank McHugh). Their car has an over heated gasket that Olga can fix pretty quickly but the Chauffeur pleads to her to stall so they will have to spend the night. He’s too tired to keep going and the women are driving him crazy.

George, hearing these two women have just come from Reno and are loaded with jewelry, decides that he and Jeff should stick around, despite the fact that the police are after them. He’s got a plan that will relieve the two ladies of some of that jewelry. He tries to reconnect with Olga but she keeps him at arms length insisting her days of dance halls, gambling and guys like him are over. But Olga still has a soft spot for George and George knows it.

As the night heats up and the lightening strikes increase, the evening ushers in some spicy pre-code scenes that heat it up even more. Myra sneaks out to be with her bad boy Steve. Olga gets out of her overalls and into a dress to prove she still an attractive woman and sneaks into a room with George. Even the Chauffeur and the younger of the two rich women (Glenda Farrell) spend some cozy time together.

Late that night Myra’s date drops her off and as she sneaks back into her room she sees Olga coming out of another room suspecting she’s been with her former lover. Olga follows Myra to her room where they confront each other but it ends with Olga consoling Myra who confesses to being used and dumped by her cad of a date. Leaving Myra’s room Olga finds George and Jeff trying to break into the safe where the rich women’s jewelry is being kept for safety. While I won’t reveal the ending here, I will say that it should have been more dramatic and as a result is a bit of a let down. In the end though the two sisters and their rest stop are soon settled back into their quiet life in the desert where nothing much happens.

The star performance here is by Aline MacMahon who is excellent as Olga and it is worth watching just for her. Ann Dorvak is beautiful but has a smaller role and is not asked to do much as the young sister which is disappointing. Overall, the entire cast is good. I especially liked Glenda Farrell, Ruth Donnelly and Frank McHugh as the two rich dames and their chauffeur. Heat Lightening is entertaining and at approximately 65 minutes moves at a nice pace.

By John Greco

Year: 1959

Director: Delbert Mann

Starring: Fredric March, Kim Novak, Glenda Farrell

Middle of the Night is a story of a May/December romance. Written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Delbert Mann. Mann directed three films written by Cheyefsky, Marty, his first film which won Best Picture of the Year and he won the Best Director award, followed by The Bachelor Party and Middle of the Night. Later on Cheyefsky would write the screenplays for Network and The Hospital. Middle of the Night started out as a TV episode on the anthology series “The Philco Television Playhouse” and starred E.G. Marshall and Eva Marie Saint. In 1956, Cheyefsky turned it into a play and it opened on Broadway with Edward G. Robinson as the older man and Gena Rowlands as the young woman. In this 1959 movie Fredric March and Kim Novak have the roles.

Jerry (March), a 56 year old lonely widower, is a successful businessman in the garment district in New York and 24 year old Betty is working there as a receptionist and part time model. Betty is newly divorced and uncertain about her future. The story centers on their romance and decision to marry, the ups and downs of relationships in general and specifically about one with a wide age difference. There’s an uncomfortable meeting where Jerry meets Betty’s mother who’s about the same age as he is and an even more painful confrontation with his family, which includes his daughter, a year younger than Betty, and his single over protective nagging sister. Everyone seems to have an opinion though the one thing everyone is in agreement on is that they are against the marriage. Then there are their own insecurities, Jerry’s jealousy when she talks to younger men or will she leave him in a few years? Betty anxieties are over her newly divorced husband, a mostly unemployed musician who wants her back and a father fixation. At the end, despite all the objections from family and their own uncertainties they love each other and maybe they have a chance.

Fredric March is excellent as Jerry who at 56 feels that life has passed him by. Family and friends tell him that he should relax in his old age and take it easy. Jerry feels like everyone is ready to put him out to pasture until he starts dating Betty who makes him feel alive again. He tells everyone he’ll have enough time to take it easy when he’s dead! You totally believe March in this role, the struggles and fears that he is facing at this particular junction in his life. Kim Novak also does a fine job as the young and insecure Betty whose father dumped his family when she was young. Conflicted about the breakup of her marriage she finds comfort and security with Jerry. She brings a nice vulnerability to Betty that makes her real. Through out her career Novak has been underrated as an actress. She holds her own here with a magnificent cast that includes Lee Grant, Martin Balsam, Albert Dekker and Glenda Farrell. There are also some nice location scenes of New York’s garment district and other areas circa the late 1950’s.

One aspect that I found interesting is how old the actors look considering the age they are portraying. Fredric March who was 62 at the time portrays a man who is 56. Albert Dekker’s character was 59 ( he was 54 in real life), however both men look closer to being in their late 60’s maybe even in their 70’s. Compared to some of today’s actors equivalent in age like Dennis Quaid (54) or Jeff Bridges (58) or Harrison Ford (65) they looked much older than the ages they are portraying. Lifestyle? Healthier living? Whatever it is, people do look a lot young today than their counterparts of forty or fifty years ago..

Delbert Mann began his career during the Golden Age of Television drama. When people discussed directors from the Golden Age of Television who came to film in the late 50’s and early 60’s the names usually consist of John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn.. Delbert Mann is rarely mentioned yet his resume in those early years is pretty impressive. His debut film was Marty, which as previously mentioned won a few Oscars. That was followed by The Bachelor Party in 1957, Desire Under the Elms, Separate Tables, Middle of the Night and Dark at the Top of the Stairs. All of these were adaptations of stage plays except for Marty and The Bachelor Party. In the 1960’s Mann had success with two Doris Day comedies, That Touch of Mink and Lover Come Back. He made a few more films including Mister Buddwing and The Pink Jungle before going back to television in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Mann was a solid actor’s director and always told a good story.

Middle of the Night had a rare showing on TCM recently. Today this film is almost forgotten and it does not deserve this fate. It has never been released in any home video format.

By John Greco

I figured I’d start thing out with my favorite movie…

Year: 1933
Director: Frank Borzage
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Loretta Young, Marjorie Rambeau, Glenda Farrell, Walter Connolly, Arthur Hohl
Availability: Not on DVD or commercial VHS, but can be found through rare video dealers. Try http://www.robertsvideos.com

Frank Borzage was the master of romance. His films were so much more rewarding than most romances because his characters truly earned their happiness. His very best films were made during the very worst of times, the Great Depression. Mannequin, Bad Girl, and his masterpiece Man’s Castle all stand out as three of the best films made in the 1930s.

In Man’s Castle, Borzage manages to make even such a harsh and awful time seem like a fairytale, and the precedent for that style is set in the very first scene. It’s Central Park at night, filmed in extremely soft focus, giving the scene a romantic and gentle feel, while what’s going on in the scene is anything but. Bill (Spencer Tracy) is sitting on a bench, throwing popcorn to the birds, watching almost apathetically while Trina (Loretta Young) cries to herself because she’s so hungry. The rest of the film works in this same way, turning the most tragic and hopeless of situations into a dreamy fairytale. Borzage creates a the fairy tale not by ignoring the problems of the world around them, but by making them live through these things to earn their happiness. The soft and dreamy feeling makes the film warm throughout, enforcing Borzage’s message that home is about who you’re with, not where you are.

Borzage stresses the connection between Bill and Trina and their isolation from the “rest of the world” early in the film. After they meet in the park, Bill takes Trina to a fancy restaurant, where they’re eventually kicked out because they can’t pay the bill. They follow that by walking the streets of New York. With not enough money to shoot on location, or even afford ectras for the backlot, Borzage used rear projection for this scene, and it only helps to make Trina and Bill stand out from the masses, and emphasize their separation from a happier world.

Not until they get to Bill’s Hooverville home do they mix in with the surroundings. These are the people they belong with. But despite the natually shabby appearance, the squatters village is filmed like a majestic castle. Bill and Trina make their home here, but it’s what that home symblolizes to each of them that drives the story onward. To Bill, home is nothing more than something that ties him to one place, and he constantly tells Trina throughout the film that he’s likely to leave her at any time. To Trina, the home is the one place where she’s finally found stability and something permanent. She refers to it in the film as her safety zone. She tells Bill that he’s free to leave anytime he wants, and even though that though truly does terrify her, she knows that even if Bill leaves, she’ll still have their home.

At first glance, Bill and Trina’s relationship doesn’t seem particularly loving or stable. Bill’s fear of being tied down leads him to ridicule Trina, and Trina’s need for committment and affection leads her to take that ridicule without fighting back. As Bill’s love for Trina grows, so does his restlessness, because he thinks that loving Trina means benig trapped. Bill constantly struggles between keeping himself free and making the woman he loves happy. This shows in his struggle over the stove that Trina wants. At first, he refuses to buy her the stove on the installment plan, knowing that he’d have to stay around for a year just to pay the stove off. Eventually though, he relents. His presentation of the stove to Trina is the most beautiful scene in the film. After a few minutes of gentle bullying and banter, he bring the stove into the house, surprising her. Trina, so overjoyed by the gesture, drops to her knees in front of the stove and dissolves into tears. It’s an awkward moment for Bill, not because of his lack of affection for Trina, but because he has so much for her that seeing her so happy makes him uncomfortable.

The struggle between Bill’s desires – to be free and never tied down, and to be loved and to love someone – continues to drive the plot of the film until the extremely satisfying ending, where Bill discovers that he doesn’t have to have one thing or the other.

By: Katie Richardson

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