Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fish Out of Water

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.


  1. I haven't seen Captains Courageous yet. (It's on the DVR so I'll probably get to it before too long.) But I did see Tortilla Flat recently, and I really loved it despite it being kind of stupid.

    What saved it was the acting. Spencer Tracy was kind of awful, but the right kind of awful, really understanding what kind of dippy movie it was and playing it like a character from a fairy tale.

    I recorded it for Hedy Lamarr because she's STUNNING, but she's also really good in this. I haven't seen that many of her films but she's always a very entertaining performer. I'm not sure about her acting chops but she knew what to do in front of a camera, and I think she must have known what movies complemented her abilities.

    Akim Tamaroff, Allen Jenkins, Frank Morgan and John Qualen and probably a few people I've forgotten really made the most of the material and put together an interesting and fun movie. I'm glad I repressed the urge to stop and delete it about ten minutes in.

    John Garfield looked really lost. Like he wandered into the wrong movie based on a John Steinbeck book and nobody ever clued him in.

    I'm considerably off-topic. I'll be sure to post when I have seen Captain Courageous. I keep putting it off for movies like China Seas with Jean Harlowe and The Man in Possession with Robert Montgomery and Housewife with Ann Dvorak and Bette Davis.

    1. I'll essentially repeat what I said above--Tracy is the reason to watch this. I've had a number of people disagree with me on that, but I think he nails this. That John Carradine is also excellent in this is just a bonus.

  2. I thought this was going to be a bit of a chore. But it is very entertaining and also very touching at times.

    Although I doubt very much that some of the things I found so amusing were intentional on the part of the filmmakers. I thought Spencer Tracy was great because his terrible Chico Marx impression is hilarious and very endearing. I don't know how Freddie Bartholomew kept a straight face! What a professional!

    Also on the plus side is the great cast! Tracy, Bartholomew, Lionel Barrymore, John Carradine, Melvyn Douglas, Mickey Rooney.

    I saw Carradine on the deck of the sailing ship, with the sea spray all around, and it struck me what a great Ahab he would have made if they had made a version of Moby Dick in the 1930s. And then it hit me that this movie is full of actors who would have made a great Ahab! Imagine Lionel Barrymore in Rasputin mode! He would have made crazy crazy nutty Ahab that would really over-the-top but the movie would be a joy to watch. And think of Spencer Tracy as Ahab! Wow!

    But I'm off-topic.

    Captains Courageous, despite my good-natured mockery, is well-made and probably seemed like a classic for the ages to 1937 audiences. It got to me. The tears welled up in my eyes several times, like when Manuel was telling the little story about god taking his father up to heaven and giving him a fishing boat. Very touching. I teared up a little when Manuel died and when Harvey went to the church to light candles for Manuel and Manual's father. I kind of lost track of how many times I teared up. I watched in the morning when nobody else was awake yet and I'm glad nobody saw me.

    Anybody who's been hesitant about this movie doesn't need to worry about it. It's watchable and entertaining. It's occasionally hilarious for the wrong reasons but it's also often very touching for all the right reasons.

    I'm not real clear why it's on the List. I have to admit.

    1. I can't tell you why it's on the list off the top of my head, either. It may be the performance of Spencer Tracy, or the desire to have a good representative film of Freddie Bartholemew, who was one of those kids who crops up now and then who appears in everything for a few years.

      This isn't a perfect film by any stretch, but it's a good one, and I like the message. More importantly, it's a film from this era with a child as the main actor and I didn't want to slap the kid around by the end of the movie. That's pretty rare.