“Blessed are the poor in spirit for their’s is the kingdom of heaven”
With Frank Borzage taking on both WWI and WWII in his career it only makes sense that he would take on the event that in many ways bridged them — The Great Depression.
It’s fairly early on in the story where the local resident Ira (Walter Connolly), a minister by day and a night watchman by night cites the Sermon on the Mount and later references 1 Corinthians 1:27. The moral being: Blessed are the poor in spirit and God chooses the lowly things of this world and the despised things to nullify the things that are strong.
If nothing else a character such as Ira is one of the lovable figures in this fairly dank and dreary tale but his words breathe an inherent worth into the masses of everyday individuals slogging their way through the Depression. In many ways, this film is a eulogy to those very people, the downtrodden, the poor, the heavy-laden folks.
But sometimes those same folks seem to come in all shapes and size making it nearly impossible to get a line on them. We first meet Bill (Spencer Tracy) a veteran fast-talking Artful Dodger-type who works the streets of New York in his top hat and tails. In this very first sequence, he’s in the middle of a seemingly frivolous activity offering breadcrumbs to the pigeons.
He catches the young gal (Loretta Young) next to him giving him the eye and calls her out. Although she might not look it, she’s destitute, going without food on two days now so he begrudgingly agrees to treat her to some fine dining. Of course, when the time to pay the check comes so comes the big reveal. Bill is just about as broke as Trina and they get thrown out (at least with full bellies).
For the rest of the film they hold up together in a shantytown in the local Hooverville where the existence is sparse but Trina exists as a happy homemaker whose indefatigable spirit never seems to dampen. Bill spends his days drifting finding bits and pieces of work here and there and in the evenings he comes home to his gal. Any other circumstances and their lives would seem fairly normal.
He playing the breadwinner. She playing his devoted spouse. Except he gets the bread by serving a summons to a local stage performer and stilt walking in his free moments, among other things. But he scrapes together enough to get Trina a new stove for their hovel. The fact that they remain unmarried is invariably inconsequential and Trina’s not looking to tie down her man — she’s far too understanding and open-minded for such thoughts.
And although partially unbelievable its integral in how Tracy’s protagonist reveals his true character. Yes, he is a man with restless feet constantly playing the curmudgeon — disdaining the “ball and chain.” However, there’s an old adage that would be apt in describing him. His bark is worse than his bite.
There’s no conceivable way that two individuals such as this should remain together and even in the film there are moments when their symbiotic relationship seems to be splitting at the seams.
Tracy is brusque and surprisingly stink-eyed but as is his custom he comes around and has the audience on his side for the very fact that Loretta Young is so devoted to him. On her part, the sprightly and ever-effervescent Young at the ripe young age of 20 might be skinny but she holds her own and is crucial to making this love story something of substance.
Borzage once more dissects a romance that’s, in this case, one of the most unlikely pairings but Bill ceaselessly subverts our expectations. He’s not such a bad cad after all and Trina makes him be better than he has any right to be.
In this specific instance, the two lovers get their happy ending clutching each other closely in a pile of hay aboard a freight train. The destination nor the future seems to matter because the underlining factor is they have each other. You’ll be hard-pressed to find many affluent people in this picture and this is an important distinction to make. This is not a screwball comedy. On the contrary, center stage is given to members of society who are usually marginalized and it comes off exceedingly well thanks to Tracy and Young.
Note: It’s most likely that the cut you will see is the 1938 reissued version following the installation of the Hays Codes. I’m not actually sure if an original print is still available or if it’s considered lost.