Dream Home: "Man’s Castle" Restored

In Frank Borzage’s films, nothing outside of the lovers’ intimate space is truly real.
Imogen Sara Smith

Man's Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933).

“When you’re dead, you get a hunk of earth. When you’re alive, all you’ve got is that hunk of blue.” This is how Bill (Spencer Tracy), the restless hero of Frank Borzage’s Man’s Castle (1933), explains his insistence on sleeping under the open sky. Borzage’s films always cast their eyes heavenward with exalted sincerity; they offer no sop to modern irony or cynicism. No one should watch them who is not prepared to be enraptured.

The essence of Borzage’s romanticism resides in the enchanted spaces his lovers create together: sometimes a semi-permanent home, like the Parisian garret in 7th Heaven (1927), at other times a fleeting idyll of shared fantasy, like the abandoned plantation mansion where the outcast couple in Moonrise (1948) waltz amid the shadows and cobwebs. These magical playhouses are spaces of care and refuge as much as dreamy eroticism; in Man’s Castle, Trina (Loretta Young) describes the shanty where she shacks up with Bill as a “safety zone.” But the idea of home is even more fraught here than in Borzage’s other films; far from a shared fantasy, it is the primary bone of contention between Trina and Bill, a vagrant who resists being tied down or staying in one place. The retractable skylight window he installs in their shack, so that he can sleep without a roof over his head, represents the uneasy, temporary compromise between her longing for security and his insistence on freedom.

Man’s Castle was made during the lowest depths of the Great Depression, and during the last full year before strict enforcement of the puritanical Motion Picture Production Code began. Creating a hobo-by-choice hero who heeds the lure of train whistles and prefers to avoid steady work and sleep in the open might seem out of touch at a time when so many Americans were homeless and on the road by necessity. Man’s Castle has none of the despairing anger that courses through other 1933 films like William Wellman’s Heroes for Sale and Wild Boys of the Road, which present raw, searing portraits of hardship and injustice. But while Borzage shows little interest in broader political messaging—when the film’s heavy, a creep named Bragg (Arthur Hohl), makes a rabble-rousing speech about economic inequality, he loses his whole audience—the director’s core beliefs in the sanctity of human feeling and the private space of loving relationships constitute a political stance, as would become clear in his anti-fascist films Three Comrades (1938) and The Mortal Storm (1940). 

Man's Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933).

If Borzage was generally out of step with the bitterness and disillusionment of the times, Man’s Castle was on the cutting edge in its sexual frankness—something we can now appreciate thanks to a restoration from Sony Pictures Entertainment that returns material cut or altered for a 1938 post-Code re-release, as well as burnishing the soft, pearlescent beauty of the cinematography. Man’s Castle screens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from April 18 through 24, 2024, accompanied by a choice selection of Borzage’s other films, including the rarely screened No Greater Glory (1934), a surprisingly direct and harrowing anti-militarist allegory made, like Man’s Castle, at Columbia Pictures.

The film’s Manhattan setting is a patchwork of stock shots, rear projection, and charmingly stylized backdrops of silhouetted skyscrapers and soaring bridges. The artificiality is almost the point: nothing outside of the lovers’ intimate space is truly real in Borzage’s films. Bill and Trina’s meet-cute takes place in Central Park, where he, resplendent in top hat and white tie, is feeding the pigeons, and she is hungrily eyeing the popcorn he throws. When she says she hasn’t eaten in two days, he takes her out for an expensive meal—then reveals to the restaurant manager that he hasn’t got a dime, browbeats the man about wasting food while people go hungry, and gets away with it through sheer chutzpah. It turns out the dress suit that let him pass for a swell is a uniform for his job as a walking billboard: the shirt-front lights up with an advertisement for a coffee shop, and he gets two bucks a day for strolling through Times Square blinking it on and off. He takes the homeless and jobless Trina back to the encampment where he lives (he calls it “Vagville,” but such shantytowns were known as Hoovervilles in bitter tribute to President Herbert Hoover). They were common settings in Depression-era films, including comedies like My Man Godfrey (1936), and if they are usually somewhat idealized, they are at least acknowledged; it is hard to imagine Hollywood today attempting a mainstream romantic comedy set in a 21st-century tent city, much less pulling it off. Here, Bill remarks that when people have nothing, “they act like human beings.”  In a celebration of having nothing, he talks Trina into skinny-dipping with him in the Hudson River. In the next scene, she is cheerfully washing his clothes in their cobbled-together shack.

Man's Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933).

Almost every time she appears, Trina is doing housework. She yearns above all for a proper stove, and weeps with gratitude when Bill buys her one. She is angelic and uncomplaining, merely hoping he doesn’t get tired of her too quickly, but insisting he is free and owes her nothing. For his part, Bill makes an elaborate show of his toughness and chauvinism, continually insulting Trina, whom he calls “Whosis”—she is too skinny, a bag of bones, she will never be a real woman—threatening to hit her (he never does, so far as we see), and warning that he might walk out on her any day. She takes it all with a smile, defending him and belittling herself; this is hard to watch at times, but Borzage’s long-suffering, self-sacrificing women are also the moral backbones of his world. Bill’s attitude is not merely dated; other characters in the film remark on how badly he treats Trina. And yet, for all his tough talk, it is blatantly obvious that Bill is really a mensch, not to say a sentimental slob, the kind of guy who forges Babe Ruth’s signature on a baseball for a disabled boy, and who goes to great lengths to bring a humble flower home to Trina and even greater lengths to pretend that he hasn’t. As Hamlet would say, he protests too much, and Loretta Young’s beauty is so unearthly that his churlish insults are easy to dismiss as the posturing of a man who doesn’t want to admit he’s out of his league, or that he’s snared for life. (Still, one wants to applaud when the loathsome Bragg tells Trina, “You’re slim. You’re not skinny.”) The film requires us to accept both sides of Bill’s character—the selfish brute and the generous protector—just as it insists on the dual realities of grinding poverty and romantic bliss, creating a shimmering alloy of realism and fantasy.

Spencer Tracy, with his plain, no-style style, his almost aggressive lack of vanity, keeps Bill’s sweeter side from cloying, but he does let some warmth seep through his gruff exterior. Newly restored scenes make clear what was obscured in the censored 1938 version: that Bill is cheating on Trina with Fay La Rue (Glenda Farrell), a torch singer whose cynical worldliness makes no emotional demands.  Their first encounter comes when he surprises her onstage by serving her a summons (for “alienation of affection”), another one-off gig he takes for the money; and they meet again when she is rehearsing and he appears at a second-story window, stilt-walking in a clown costume as another advertising stunt. The 1938 version not only suppressed this casual-sex relationship, it also corrected the fact that Bill and Trina are living in sin by moving up their marriage from the end of the film to its beginning. In the original (and now restored) version, he grudgingly weds her only after she has revealed that she’s pregnant; his first reaction to the news is to hop on a freight train and flee, but he then returns with the intention of providing money and a legitimate name for the child before taking off. In its denouement, the film adds attempted robbery and murder to premarital sex and infidelity on its list of forgivable crimes. 

Man's Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933).

For all their high-mindedness, Borzage’s films bypass conventional morality; their faith is in the redemptive, even miraculous, power of love. There are few overt references to religion in his work, but his romanticism fuses spiritual and erotic love with the kind the Bible calls “charity.” In Man’s Castle, Ira (Walter Connolly), a former clergyman living in the Hooverville, where he tenderly cares for the good-hearted dipsomaniac Flossie (Marjorie Rambeau), quotes from Corinthians: “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.” 

True to his roots in silent film, Borzage always communicates most powerfully through images and gestures rather than words. Trina, who started out as a helpless waif afraid of everything, reveals in a speech at the end that she has gained some spine and spirit, mocking Bill for being “afraid of a little baby.” He, the big talker, does not admit his submission in words but with his body language: the last scenes see him on the floor, below her, in the position of a supplicant. The breathtaking final shot looks down from above as Bill and Trina lie in the straw of a boxcar, the skirt of her old-fashioned wedding dress fanned out, he curled against her with his head on her breast. They are still but moving, at rest but free, in a perfect marriage between his desires and hers. It is perhaps the supreme image in Borzage’s oeuvre; there is no sky in it, only heaven on earth.

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


Frank Borzage
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.