Frank Borzage's "Man's Castle" is, like a few of his other films, the story of two misfits (in this case, Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young) whose love brings a hitherto unknown depth to their lives. Yes, this sounds incredibly pretentious, but the films are usually better than they sound. And "Man's Castle" really has a lot of fans out there, some who consider it one of the director's best film, if not the best. Borzage is a director that can as easily engage me as well as leave completely cold. In the first category are the Margaret Sullavan MGMs, "Mannequin", "Desire" and the first 70 minutes of "7th Heaven"; in the second, the rest of "7th Heaven", "The Spanish Main" and "Strange Cargo" (which I really, really, really hated, but that's another story). "Man's Castle" lies somewhere in the middle. With so much praise going around, I really wanted to like it. Alas, its gender politics and misplaced over-romantism really got on my nerves.
Borzage had a tendency to idealise the world in his films, his characters inhabiting something slightly nobler than the world that surrounds them. In "7th Heaven" he pulls it off, creating a self-contained world, where two almost magical beings live (Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, both possessing an ethereal quality, also shared by Margaret Sullavan in the MGM films) and a medium (silent film) that help it all work. "Man's Castle" on the other hand, belongs to the hard world of the Depression: poverty, shanty towns, unemployment, hunger, alcoholism, crime, are all here. Not a place where for ethereal characters, clearly not helped by the casting of Spencer Tracy, one of the most earth-bound actors ever. But it was Loretta Young's character "look at me, I'm making a home now" that lost me entirely. She spends most of the film washing, cooking or taking care of the house for a man that is hardly ever there and when he is, is not exactly the most engaging of partners, wishing clearly he was somewhere else. This idea that all a woman wants is a man that might leave her at any moment and a stove is something that sent several shivers down my spine - when she said she'd give up her baby if that would make him happy, I cringed.
There are some positives as well - the opening sequences are quite good (perhaps Young is too clean and composed for someone with nowhere to live, but I put that down to 1930s Hollywood) and got my attention. Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young do a wonderful job of what is, in my opinion, a very flawed script, Tracy in particular. The supporting cast, lead by Glenda Farrell and Walter Connolly are excellent, although Arthur Hohl overdoes the sliminess from time to time. Finally, as a Pre-code title, there's plenty of sexual innuendo as expected (mostly cortesy of Ms Farrell, while trying to seduce Tracy) and an out-of-wedlock baby.