Frank Borzage’s romantic drama Man’s Castle was released by Columbia Pictures in 1933, the year generally regarded as the worst of The Great Depression. The severe worldwide economic downturn began in the United States, leaving fifteen million Americans unemployed and forcing many to live in shantytowns. Hollywood often created pictures that showed the hardships of the time, including Man’s Castle.
The film begins with Bill (Spencer Tracy), a well-dressed laborer meeting Trina (Loretta Young), a hungry and desperate young woman. He brings her to a restaurant only to reveal that he has no money. Bill creates such a commotion with the restaurant owner who is just happy for them to leave the restaurant without paying.
Learning that Trina is also homeless, Bill takes pity on her and allows her to stay in his shack in a shantytown. Their neighbors include a widowed former preacher Ira (Walter Connolly) and an alcoholic older woman Flossie (Marjorie Rambeau).
Bill picks up work where he can as Trina turns their shack into a home. She makes no demand on him because she does not want to let him feel trapped. However, Bill falls for showgirl Fay La Rue (Glenda Farrell) and is considering leaving Trina, but his decision is made more difficult at the news that Trina is pregnant with his child.
With a screenplay by Jo Swerling (adapted from Lawrence Hazard’s play), Man’s Castle is a candid depiction of some of the human struggles created by the Great Depression. Although the character of Bill is a jack-of-all-trades and seemingly carefree, he has no money. Trina is hungry and desperate. Although Bill takes pity on Trina, his discomfort at being tied down by her is apparent, especially when he becomes unpleasant.
As a pre-code film, Man’s Castle describes an unmarried couple co-habiting and having a baby out of wedlock. This and similar movies would soon face censorship due to the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code one year later. An edited version of the film (cut from 78 minutes to 66 minutes) was re-released in 1938 to capitalize on Spencer Tracy’s rising popularity and is the only version now available.
The hardships and the challenges of the characters are handled delicately by Borzage (aided by some excellent cinematography from Joseph H. August), creating a fairy tale that is devoid of phony sentiment that matches his best work from the previous era.
Man’s Castle also contains early roles for future Academy Award winners Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young. Tracy is excellent as Bill but the other performances from Glenda Farrell (Fay La Rue), Marjorie Rambeau (Flossie), Walter Connolly (Ira), and Arthur Hohl (Bragg) are also exceptional.
However, it is Loretta Young who is the outstanding star of this low-budget gem from early Hollywood. We care for the plight of the leads because we care for Trina. Young’s performance in the film, and all her early performances, contain incredible depth and a gentle vulnerability seldom matched on the big screen. Historians need to urgently revisit the early career of Loretta Young to reappreciate her immense talent. Man’s Castle is the best place for them to start.