Captains Courageous (1937)

“Fifteen years I been fisherman — first time I ever fish a boy like you!”

Synopsis:
The spoiled son (Freddie Bartholomew) of a distracted magnate (Melvyn Douglas) accidentally falls overboard and is rescued by a Portuguese fisherman (Spencer Tracy) who takes him under his wing. Soon Bartholomew has learned to work hard and take responsibility, and develops deep respect for Tracy and the rest of the ship’s crew, including the captain (Lionel Barrymore) and his son (Mickey Rooney). Will his new work ethos last beyond the duration of the trip?

Genres:

Review:
Spencer Tracy won his first Oscar playing a quirky, music-loving Portuguese fisherman in this adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s novel, which nicely shows the progression of a manipulative boy — who’s authentically confused about why no one seems to like him — into someone who’s learned the value of hard work and cooperation. The storyline is very clearly set up for Tracy to serve as an alternative father figure for Bartholomew, which he does admirably — and Bartholomew himself turns in a nuanced, empathetic performance (not easy when playing a spoiled rich kid). Most of the film takes place during rocky days at sea, showing ample footage of fishing and rivalry with a nearby ship; I got a little bit seasick watching the proceedings, but can imagine young boys fantasizing about just such a real-life adventure. While not quite a classic, this one has held up reasonably well.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Freddie Bartholomew as Harvey
  • Spencer Tracy as Manuel (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Fine cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look. Listed as a film with Historical Relevance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Captains Courageous (1937)”

  1. First viewing. A tentative once-must, for Victor Fleming’s direction and for the relationship between Tracy and Bartholomew.

    I’m not a huge fan of tales of the sea (though I make enthusiastic exceptions now and then, i.e., Huston’s ‘Moby Dick’). What captivates here, I think, is Fleming’s thorough (and often subtle) understanding of the story he’s telling.

    It’s also hard not to be drawn into the gradually strong sense of trust and love that develops between Tracy and Bartholomew. Bartholomew, of course, comes off at first as the most annoying epitome of white privilege there is. When Barrymore (who is very effective in his initial dealing with Bartholomew) finally slaps him, I’m sure that’s something most viewers have been waiting for: which is to say, someone to clearly put the spoiled brat in his place. Tracy follows up, but in a way that the boy takes to. And it’s eventually very touching to watch.

    Stronger than usual performances are also turned in by Rooney and John Carradine (as ‘Long Jack’).

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