Harsh-spirited, episodic, in a rage over the ghastly injustices of economic privation, Man’s Castle focuses on the insecurity of a man who belittles the woman that loves him and tries to run away from her every chance he gets. When they first meet, Bill (Spencer Tracy) is dressed up in a monkey suit with a flashing advertisement on his chest (he’s paid to walk back and forth) and Trina (Loretta Young) is starving and has been out of work for a year. Young truly looks like she’s hungry, just two big eyes staring out at the unjust world, too scared to sell her body and too scared to kill herself. But she finds strength in Bill’s toughness and righteous anger, and a moonlit skinny-dip swim cements their love carnally—water purifies in Borzage’s world, just as snow does in more desperate circumstances. When we next see Trina, she is washing Bill’s shirt. “Bill is particular. Everything that goes near his skin has to be clean,” she boasts. “I expect he’s the cleanest man in the world!” Trina marvels, one of the most truly erotic tributes to the sanctified flesh of a lover in film history.
But Bill is scared of his feelings for Trina, and he puts her down constantly. This is mitigated most of the time by Tracy’s obvious tenderness underneath his curt swagger, but their relationship has its ugly side. Trina is a slave to Bill (“Yes, sir!” she says, as he beams at her servitude). She is also a sexual commodity that he doesn’t want to lose, so that he’s always complaining, disingenuously but tiresomely, about her skinniness. The balance of power shifts between them in a lyrical scene where Bill realizes that the blue of the sky he cherishes through his skylight is also present in Trina’s eyes. Taking her chance, Trina climbs into bed with Bill and tells him that she’s pregnant, crying, “You’re a prisoner inside of me!”
Man’s Castle portrays their love as a kind of Oedipal push-and-pull, and Bill can only jump on so many freights before he comes back to this woman he needs to breathe. It makes him and us uncomfortable, but the end of Bill’s independence marks the beginning of what looks like his mature romantic security: the last shot has him giving up his tough-guy act, resting his head on Trina’s breast like a little boy. Borzage’s camera pulls up to view the woman’s gleaming white wedding dress, a symbol of unsullied purity in the hay of a boxcar, a refuge from the ravages of the Depression, a bit of womb-like peace amid the unrest of the film’s brassy Glenda Farrell showgirls and voyeuristic lechers.