70. 5th Avenue Girl (Gregory LaCava, 1939)
Another great film to come of the Golden Year of cinema, 5th Avenue Girl is something of a somber romantic comedy. It’s a funny movie about poverty and being ignored by your family! Sounds like a howler, right? But really, it manages to be very funny and very touching at the same time. Mary, played with a healthy does of world weary cynicism by Ginger Rogers, is a poor girl hired by Mr. Borden, the always wonderful Walter Connolly, to come live in his home as pose as his new ladyfriend to help him in his attempts to get his family to notice him again. His wife, his son, and his daughter all ignore him while paying attention to his money. The scheme definitely works, but complications arise when the attentions of his son (played by a pretty darn dreamy Tim Holt) toward Mary turn from suspicious to romantic. 5th Avenue Girl joins movies like My Man Godfrey in the category of socially conscious screwballs of the Depression era, but it definitely has a darker tone overall than most of the film of this type. The film is also notable for Verree Teasdale’s performance as Mr. Borden’s wife.

069. Kongo (William J. Cowen, 1932)
There are some movies that have such a strong atmosphere you can actually feel it physically, on your skin and in your bones. Kongo is one of those movies. It’s a film with such deplorable characters and horrible goings-on that it really could only come out of the pre-code era. And it has an atmosphere of so much wrongness, dirtiness, and sexuality that it almost oozes off the screen. Walter Huston is incredible as the depraved Flint, a cripple who reigns over a cult of natives in Africa. He’s a twisted individual who’s completely self obsessed and bent on revenge. In the film, most of his wrath is brought down upon Dr. Kingsland (Conrad Nagel), a doctor who he kidnaps in hopes that he’ll be able to heal him, and Ann (Virginia Bruce), the  main pawn in his revenge scheme. The brutalizes the two of them, getting them addicted to drugs and forcing Ann into prostitution. It isn’t a pleasant movie to watch, but it is an incredible look at the darkest side of human nature you could possibly find. Along with Huston’s masterful performance, Nagel and Bruce are incredible. Their characters become so broken and hopeless. They’re really the only sympathetic characters in the film, and watching them be just so utterly destroyed is pretty heartwrenching.

068. Anna Karenina (Clarence Brown, 1935)
It’s kind of amazing that a studio would even attempt an adaptation of Anna Karenina, a story that’s all about adultery, after the pre-code era. Despite the restrictions of the era, of the many adaptations of Tolstoy’s novel, Clarence Brown’s 1935 version is probably the best. This was actually the second time Garbo had played Anna Karenina. She’d made a silent, modernized version in the 1920s opposite her then paramour John Gilbert, entitled Love. The role is one that suits Garbo and her talents so amazingly well, and it’s hard for any other actress in the  role to measure up to her.  Particularly impressive are the moments between Anna and her son. Garbo loved children, though she never had any of her own, and the few scenes she shared with children throughout her career are some of the most purely emotional and open moments Garbo ever had onscreen.

067. Five and Ten (Robert Z. Leonard, 1931)
While Marion Davies was always at her best in comedies, she did have some seriously dramatic acting chops. Where so many films during the Depression were about the poor, Five and Ten told the story of a family who acquires new wealth, and the negative effects that has. So I guess it sort of said to the Depression audiences, “Don’t feel bad about being poor. Look at how awful and miserable the people who have money are.” The film looks at the Rarick family as they become members of the new rich. Instead of being blissfully happy with their new money, each family member faces their own problems. Jennifer (Davies), tries to become a member of society, but is generally shunned because she doesn’t come from old money. Her mother (Irene Rich) is bored with her life since her husband works so much, and she takes up with gigolo. Avery, Jennifer’s brother, played by Douglass Montgomery, spends all his time worrying about the problems of his family and it starts to drive him a little crazy. Where the wealthy families in films like Merrily We Live are endearingly nutty, the Raricks are an incredibly sad family to watch.

066. Follow the Fleet (Mark Sandrich, 1936)
There are so many ways in which this is not your typical Astaire/Rogers musical. First, fter Flying Down to Rio, Fred and Ginger were almost always cast as the leads. This time they share pretty equal screentime with a less interesting, but still charming, couple comprised of Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard. Second, the pair usually played characters of considerable wealth, or were, at the very least, comfortable. In Follow the Fleet, he’s a sailor and she’s working hard at a dance hall just to make ends meet. Finally, this is the only film in which one of their dances breaks character and they’re actually performing the dance as other characters. These differences make for a breath of fresh air in the Astaire/Rogers canon. For once they’re a completely ordinary couple, trying hard to raise some money. The films features two of their best dances, the beautiful “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, and “I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket”, a lighter number which shows off Ginger’s incredibly gift for physical comedy.

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

Ginger Rogers is my favorite actress. She’s mostly remembered today for being Fred Astaire’s dance partner throughout the 1930s. But Rogers had an acting talent that went beyond that. She was a fantastic and graceful dancer, but she should be remembered as so much more. Her range was unbelievable. She could make a fantastic screwball comedy, and then turn around and make a melodrama, giving great performances in both. Rogers stopped dancing with Astaire in 1939 with The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (they’d re-team just once more, ten years later, for The Barkleys of Broadway) to focus on a career in non-musical films. Almost immediately her talent was recognized and she won an Academy Award for her performance in the 1940 film Kitty Foyle. Unfortunately, though, so many of her sans-Fred films aren’t remembered today. Here are some of the best.

Primrose Path (Gregory La Cava, 1940)

The same year she gave her award winning performance in Kitty Foyle, she gave an even better performance in Primrose Path, as the daughter of a prostitute who tries to escape her life by marrying Joel McCrea. This is one of the most beautiful love stories put out by the studio system. It’s about the importance of honesty in a marriage. It’s surprising that this film got past the Production Code, not just because it featured characters who were clearly prostitutes, but because these characters were sympathetic. Marjorie Rambeau (who received an Oscar nomination for the role) played Rogers’ mother and a basically good woman simply doing what she was taught in order to support her family. Her relationship with Rogers is gentle. She only wants the best for her children. Primrose Path is a really brave film for the time it was made, and it’s just one of the best romance films I’ve ever seen.

Rafter Romance (William A. Seiter, 1933)

Rafter Romance is actually a pre-Fred film. It’s a simple but incredible sweet and pretty funny romance. Rogers and Norman Foster play two people who share an apartment – he lives there during the day, she lives there at night. They never meet, but they still can’t stand each other. Of course, they meet outside of the apartment, not realizing the other is the person they believe they can’t stand, and they fall in love. This is definitely one of the most original romantic comedies of the early 1930s. Rogers is completely charming, and Norman Foster is a good match for her. They’re both just so endlessly cute.

Romance In Manhattan (Stephen Roberts, 1935)

It’s amazing that such a simple romantic dramady can be so moving. Francis Lederer plays an immigrant who is in the country illegally. He’s taken in by Rogers and her kid brother. It’s really as simple as that. The three just try to make a living and stay afloat while Lederer and Rogers fall in love. But it’s such a sincere and genuine romance. It’s made with so much heart from all involved. And it has one of the funniest finales ever.

Star of Midnight (Stephen Roberts, 1935)

Star of Midnight is my favorite Thin Man knockoff. It’s central mystery is really very interesting, and it has a certain “strange” feeling that I think sets it apart from other screwball mysteries. Powell stars in this (and he’s great, as always) with Rogers as his much younger and very eager love interest. She goes after everything with determination and vigor, whether it’s trying to solve the case or trying to get Powell to marry her. I really wish these two had made more movies together. They were a perfect fit.

Vivacious Lady (George Stevens, 1938)

Vivacious Lady is a sweet romantic comedy made great by the brilliant pairing of Ginger Rogers and James Stewart. They both had an “everyman” feel to them, which made them an incredibly relatable couple. You want so badly for them to be happy together because they’re so normal and remind you of yourself. I also like that it’s not really a movie about two people falling in love. They get married early on in the film. The movie is about them trying to break the news to his family, and staying together while they do it. It’s just an adorable movie.

Bachelor Mother (Garson Kanin, 1939)

This is one of Rogers’ very best performances. She plays a woman who has to raise an orphaned baby she finds on her own because nobody believes it’s not hers. In the meantime, she begins to fall in love with David Niven, her boss’s son who takes an interest in caring for the baby as well. This movie is so great because, in addition to the great romance between Rogers and Niven, it’s wonderful to watch Rogers’ love for the baby, that’s not even hers, grow. It’s one of the most interesting and beautiful relationships in film.

5th Avenue Girl (Gregory La Cava, 1939)

5th Avenue Girl is such a good movie because it has so much going for it. First would be the relationship between Rogers and Walter Connolly. Connolly plays a wealthy man who is ignored by his family, she when he meets Rogers on a park bench he takes her in and the two pretend they’re having an affair in the hopes that the family will finally pay attention to what he’s doing. Rogers and Connolly bond and form a really nice father/daughter relationship that’s the heart of the movie. But the movie has three love stories going on. Throughout the film, Connolly and his wife eventually find their way back to each other. Connolly’s daughter is in love with the chauffer, who seems to be something of a communist. The best love story, though, you don’t realize is there until about halfway through the movie. Rogers and Connolly’s son, Tim Holt, fall in love. It’s a strangely done romance, I’m not even sure I can really describe it, but it’s a really strong film all together.

Tom, Dick, and Harry (Garson Kanin, 1941)

Rogers played a character in Tom, Dick, and Harry who was a little… simpler than most of her other characters. She dreams of romance and love, but can’t choose between three different guys: the regular guy who’s working his way up to management at a local store, the millionaire, and the poor guy. The best part about this movie is that each of the guys has their pros and their cons, and you really have no idea who she’ll choose in the end. She gives a really adorable performance, and this movie is just cute.

Tales of Manhattan (Julian Duvivier, 1942)

In this series of loosely connected vignettes, Ginger Rogers has one of the best stories. It’s a little, short, self contained story about Rogers finding out her fiancee is a cad and realizing his pal, Henry Fonda, is perfect for her. It’s short, sweet, and funny. And Rogers and Fonda are SO good together. Watching this, it’s hard to believe they never made any other films together. They were such a good pairing.

I’ll Be Seeing You (William Dieterle, 1944)

This movie is SO amazing. While there were a lot of movies being made to show how awesome soldiers were and to spread patriotic propaganda during the war, I’ll Be Seeing You was one of the first films to really take a look at the negative effects the war was having on the soldiers. This movie gives us two incredibly flawed, complicated, and damaged characters and allows them to fall in love. It’s just such a beautiful movie. You really didn’t see movies and characters like this too much in classic film.

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

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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