The rawest, most vital Hollywood films of the early 1930s didn't turn a blind eye to the Depression. Rather, they turned the crisis into an opportunity for all kinds of storytelling, guided by socially conscious principles as much as filmmaking wiles.
Beginning next week and continuing through June 12, Northwestern University's Block Cinema is presenting a retrospective titled "Heroes and Hoovervilles: Films of the Depression." The work is remarkable and enduring, including Leo McCarey's sobering masterpiece "Make Way for Tomorrow" (May 30) and William Wellman's astounding portrait of rootless youth "Wild Boys of the Road" (June 12).
The series begins with a different sort of screen poet, director Frank Borzage, represented by "Man's Castle" and "No Greater Glory." Hollywood produced no more ardent and grave romantic than Borzage, and "Man's Castle" in particular, his fable-like evocation (based on a play) of New York City Hoovervilles and unlikely lovers, remains an oddity of singular power.
Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young play the lovers, who meet, cohabitate, pre-Production Code-era style, and make for themselves a life lived on the margins of solvency and respectability. Critic Andrew Sarris, writing in 1969, called "Man's Castle" one of the "very few films that ever captured the emotional nuances of the Depression." And how. See it if you haven't. The Hays Office snipped several mildly salacious minutes from the film a few years after its initial release, including footage from a nude swimming sequence set in the East River.
"Man's Castle" screens at 7 p.m. Thursday at Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 40 Arts Circle Dr., Evanston. For the full retrospective, go to blockmuseum.northwestern.edu.