Captains Courageous (1937): United States – directed by Victor Fleming
Not rated by the MPAA – contains some mild mature themes and brief mild violence
Captains Courageous is a film like many others, whose popularity decreased after perhaps the late 1950’s, when cliches had become so rooted in film culture that the only way to move an audience was to shock them, mildly at first then rather strongly as the 1960’s gave way to the 1970’s. But Captains Courageous is a gentle reminder that there used to be a different kind of movie, one that told a solid story with interesting characters. Some of it may be dated now, and some of it may be cliche today, but it still works, and rather well at that.
The first half hour of the film is occupied with the setup of Harvey Cheyne’s (Freddie Bartholonew) life. He is a young boy, and his father (Melvyn Douglas) is fabulously wealthy. A tower in downtown New York City has the Cheyne name on it. Harvey’s mother died some years past, and his father does the best he can. His best, unfortunately, is not very good, as he caters to Harvey’s every whim. Or, if he’s not present to cater to each whim personally (which he often isn’t) there are numerous servants ordered to dote on him.
Harvey goes to a private boarding school, a highly regarded institution, but is turning into a little prince Machiavelli at every turn. He buys friends, buy favors (by giving gifts, and expecting the recipient to gift him in turn), and carries himself with an arrogance reserved only for an elite few. His father bought the school a printing press, so he became one of the editors. One day he goes too far, and Master Tyler (Donald Briggs) realizes something must be done. Dr. Finley (Walter Kingsford), the Headmaster, agrees, and a conversation ensues with Frank Cheyne.
Harvey’s father could not exist in films today. He listens carefully to his son’s side of the story, and listens even more carefully as Dr. Finley and Master Tyler explain what happened and some possible causes of such behavior. Frank agrees that he has been lax, and, being forced to care for Harvey personally as he has been rusticated for the rest of the semester, sets about to raise him as best he can.
The first step is a trip to Europe aboard a cruise liner. However, Harvey feels the urge to own the ship, as his father is on the board of the cruise line, and his foolishness causes him to fall overboard. He is promptly picked up by a fisherman, who proceeds to take him to the fishing schooner on which he serves. There Harvey meets a variety of characters, including Captain Disko Troop (Lionel Barrymore), Troop’s son Dan (Mickey Rooney), and Long Jack (John Carradine). The friendly fellow who saved Harvey is named Manuel (Spencer Tracy).
Harvey finds he can’t exert his perceived power over this motley crew, and eventually settles in to a long lesson in life, and fishing. Manuel eventually takes him under his wing, and a special relationship develops. While slightly corny at times, this bond is what ultimately makes the film worth watching, as the movie’s themes are played out in their banter and actions.
The end result is a rather charming film content to portray a story and characters without the need for contrived drama of any kind. This may be the only seafaring film since 1937 that hasn’t featured a violent storm. Not every element works, particularly when viewed in 2011, but it is refreshing to see a film unafraid to rely on its story and characters for dramatic effect.
The acting is remarkable, particularly Bartholomew. He is magnificent as the young boy, with a charisma rarely seen in actors thrice his age. Barrymore is friendly but slightly aloof, and a hardened seaman. Rooney is cocksure in his role, and quite convincing if a little overdone. Tracey is the anomaly here. His acting is fine, but he utterly fails in portraying a fisherman of Portuguese descent. He may have one of the most awful accents in the history of film. Only certain words are affected, particularly “feesh,” which, as a fisherman, he is compelled to utter constantly. He leaves out the occasional definite article, but haphazardly. His grammar and syntax are fine, however, leading to one of the most bizarre accents I can recall, and Manuel is probably offensive to all Portuguese people.
While not without its faults, Captains Courageous is an enjoyable film, a throwback to an earlier, purer period of cinema, where a strong, simple, story could carry a picture buoyed by rounded characters and impressive acting. Even if political correctness had not been invented when it was filmed, this fact doesn’t diminish the impact the film may have on certain audiences today.