Captains Courageous: A Lesson at Sea

TWO YEARS TO MAKE! FORTUNES TO PRODUCE! IT WILL LIVE IN YOUR MEMORY FOREVER…

These are times when we ponder who has the right to play minority characters. The correct answer is anyone can do it, but should they? In 1937, Spencer Tracy had been cast as a Portuguese fisherman and he knew this would be a challenge. He didn’t really believe in himself, that he would be convincing. In the end, he won an Oscar for his performance and credited the one person who helped him succeed: Freddie Bartholomew, the child star whose greatest work was in this film.

Misbehaving at school
Young Harvey Cheyne (Bartholomew), the son of a business tycoon (Melvyn Douglas), is spoilt and misbehaves at school. Harvey counts on his father to always support him, but Frank Burton Cheyne knows his son all too well. Realizing that the boy needs to change, he brings him along for a trip to Europe. However, Harvey falls overboard somewhere near the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and is eventually picked up by Manuel Fidello (Tracy), a fisherman who’s working on a schooner out of Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Harvey demands to be taken back home immediately and is shocked to learn that as long as he’s staying on the boat he needs to earn his keep.

Already a star when he was cast
Bartholomew got his major breakthrough in David Copperfield (1935), as the lead character, and was already a star when he was cast in this movie. Still, it’s easy to argue that Captains Courageous became his greatest hit, the one movie people think of when they hear his name. He enjoyed working on the film and Tracy found comfort in him, stating in later interviews that Manuel would be accepted by audiences only if the kid believed in him. The story has them as antagonists at first, the cocky Harvey considering Manuel to be beneath him, and the fisherman hating every moment he has to spend with the brat. But things change as they get to know each other. Harvey is a quick study and begins to regard Manuel as a mentor; the fisherman realizes that perhaps something is missing in his life that Harvey can fill.

The two actors are wonderful together, their rapport guaranteeing an emotional payoff in the final half-hour when their schooner races against a rival and tragedy follows. They are surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast, especially Lionel Barrymore as the rugged captain of the schooner who really is a part of Harvey’s tough education as much as Manuel. Mickey Rooney is good as the captain’s son, appearing in this film the same year as he started playing Andy Hardy. And Melvyn Douglas provides paternal wisdom as the tycoon who understands the value of humility.

Technically speaking, the film was remembered long after its premiere. This was Victor Fleming’s first great film. Much of it is of course made in a studio, but those scenes merge seamlessly with footage that was actually shot in Gloucester (by the famous Fisherman’s Memorial in the touching finale) and out at sea, in the Grand Banks, as seen specially in that climactic race.

You might think that sentimentality dominates here. But Captains Courageous remains a thoroughly well-written story that probably made a huge impression on younger audiences at the time of its premiere. Since then, many similar movies have been made, often drowning in schmaltz. But this one stands out, because when we shed a tear near the end the filmmakers deserve that reward. They took us on an adventure that should have children in the audience dreaming of experiencing something similar. They also teach us a wholesome lesson about responsibility and empathy without getting all gooey about it.

Captains Courageous 1937-U.S. 116 min. B/W. Produced by Louis D. Lighton. Directed by Victor Fleming. Screenplay: John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly, Dale Van Every. Novel: Rudyard Kipling. Cinematography: Harold Rosson. Music: Franz Waxman. Cast: Freddie Bartholomew (Harvey Cheyne), Spencer Tracy (Manuel Fidello), Lionel Barrymore (Disko Troop), Melvyn Douglas, Charley Grapewin, John Carradine… Mickey Rooney.

Trivia: Remade as TV movies in 1977 and 1996.

Oscar: Best Actor (Tracy).

Last word: “I had warm feelings for Spencer Tracy, but there was, curiously, a sense of competitiveness that he felt towards me. I’m not trying to say that I was wonderful and he wasn’t – I don’t mean that at all – but I think he felt that, ‘Oh, wait a minute. The kid’s running off with the picture, and this is not necessarily a good idea.'” (Bartholomew, TCM)

 

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