Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Man's Castle (1933)

WHO: Frank Borzage is still underrated. Given his importance to Hollywood during the 1920s and 30s (he was the first person to win two Academy Awards for Best Direction), and his distinctive mastery of the medium, his name should be as recognizable as Frank Capra's or Ernst Lubitsch's, but for some reason none of his films have entered our cultural memory like some of those directors' have.

WHAT: My friend Ryland Walker Knight wrote a fine appreciation a few years back, that included these lovely sentences:
Man's Castle takes on characteristics of its male lead, a young Spencer Tracy, unspooling with patient bemusement and gruff shades of guile. Tracy plays Bill, a man who lives clean and free, taking whatever job will feed him, living most nights under the stars.
Bill and Trina (played by Loretta Young) represent two very different outlooks (gendered, perhaps) on poverty during the worst year of the Great Depression; their struggle to reconcile their philosophies as they form a family unit is at the heart of this film (the heart is always at the heart of a Borzage film), and as Ryland notes, makes this story a universal one applicable to any era or area.

WHERE/WHEN: 8:00 tonight only at the Roxie.

WHY: This week's Pre-Code series is not only an opportunity to see American society reflected in a mirror unclouded by the paternal haze of the censor, but a chance to see how some of the best Hollywood filmmakers responded to the rapid changes in available technology during the first several years of sync sound-on-film. Already we've seen how experimenters with cinematic language like Rouben Mamoulian, Robert Florey, Josef Von Sternberg, and William Wellman responded to the challenge of making images that could keep up with the provocative dialogue their actors were speaking, and tonight we get to see another confident hand at work on this problem.

Borzage is generally less ostentatious than these others in this period, but there's no doubt his stylistic flourishes play a major part in the feelings he evokes from his scenario. The last time I saw Man's Castle, in the midst of a Borzage retrospective, I was inspired to write an article on his contributions to Hollywood style, later republished here; it's one of my most-frequently-referred posts, which I think says a lot about the paucity of writing on the formal qualities of this director's work. I've read and watched a lot more since, and am not sure if I'd take the same line of argument. Who knows what I might be inspired to say after another viewing tonight.

HOW: Tonight's double-bill of Man's Castle and Virtue (starring Carole Lombard) is all-35mm.

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