Film: Captains Courageous
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass DVD player.
Some stories tell you where they’re going from the first few minutes. Captains Courageous is like that. Once we spend a few minutes with him, there’s no real shock where we’re going to end up. The film is based on a Kipling story, and there’s no shock that this was turned into a film before 1940. It’s a natural for the sort of treatment stories got in the early talkie days—it’s almost as if Kipling wrote it to be turned into a movie.
Young Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew) is a child of privilege, and he makes sure that everyone around him knows it. Master Harvey treats the family servants like, well, servants instead of like people and treats his friends as if they exist only for his own pleasure and amusement. In the opening sequence, Harvey is spending a vacation from boarding school at home with his father and a couple of friends. Harvey insists on getting his meals in bed, and then attempts to bribe one of the boys into getting him entrance into a particular school club. There’s precedent for Harvey; he’s one of the editors of the school paper because his father bought the school a printing press.
Sadly for Harvey, he’s confronted by one of his teachers (Donald Briggs) about his attempts at using cash to influence everyone around him. Rather than learning his lesson, Harvey runs away back to home and spins a tale for his father, Frank Burton Cheyne (Melvyn Douglas). But it goes nowhere—Harvey is temporarily booted from school, and his father takes it upon himself to teach the boy something of the world.
This doesn’t last long. On a ship crossing the ocean, Harvey falls overboard after attempting to show off to a couple of other boys. He’s picked up by a fisherman in a dory. This fisherman, a Portuguese sailor named Manuel (pronounced MAN-you-el and played by Spencer Tracy) takes Harvey back to the boat where the young lad encounters the rest of the crew including Captain Disko Troop (Lionel Barrymore), his son Dan (Mickey Rooney), Long Jack (John Carradine), and a number of other salty dogs.
And you can tell where this is going, can’t you? Harvey is going to come of age on this ship, and there are going to be a number of hard lessons for him to learn en route. Manuel will act as his surrogate father for the months the ship spends hauling in cod, and Harvey will resist every lesson he’s taught until he learns the value of hard work, of being a part of the team instead of trying to buy the team, and the real value of other people. You know this is where we’re going; it’s really the only place we can go.
And you know what? It doesn’t matter. Harvey grows up thanks to the attention that is paid him by Manuel, who eventually takes him out in his dory after betting that he and Harvey can bring in more fish than Long Jack and his partner. Harvey tries to guarantee this by fouling Long Jack’s lines. This behavior—precisely in line with the way Harvey has behaved his entire life—but Manuel won’t put up with that sort of a cheat, especially when Long Jack gets stuck and ends up with a hook embedded in his arm. But, when Harvey attempts to apologize and Long Jack gets upset with him, it is Manuel who protects the boy.
And this is the lesson that Harvey needs. From this moment on, he becomes a true member of the crew, helping to bring in the fish, cleaning the ship, and otherwise acting like one of the men aboard. It’s also evident that it’s the first time that Harvey is really happy with himself and with his life. He’s finally learned to be a man, and he discovers that he likes it, likes fishing, and wants to stay with the boat the next time it goes out.
It’s not a stretch to call this film predictable. It’s not a stretch to have a very good idea of what will happen near the end, since this is a coming-of-age story for Harvey. And yet it still works, even though I knew what was on tap for the end.
Why? Because of Spencer Tracy, who is an absolute wonder, as always. I didn’t realize until he actually mentioned that he was intended to be Portuguese; I thought he sounded Italian. But it doesn’t really matter. He speaks English with a sort of familiar foreign patois that indicates he’s been working around English speakers for a long time, but learned the language late enough in life that he never quite got the hang of it. He’s fatherly and sweet, wise, and funny. He is, in short, the kind of a man that young boys wish to be and the sort of man adult men wish they could have turned into.
I admit that I did not go into this movie expecting a whole lot, and I was pleasantly surprised by it. The characters are vibrant and interesting, and even Harvey, once he’s put in his place a bit, is someone worth rooting for. But Spencer Tracy’s mop of curly hair, his hurdy-gurdy playing, and his quiet strength and wisdom carry this picture, and carry it all the way.
Why to watch Captains Courageous: Because Spencer Tracy is an absolute treasure.
Why not to watch: You’ve seen the story one time too many already.