Captains Courageous (1937)
Release Date: June 25th, 1937 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Victor Fleming Actors: Freddie Bartholomew, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, Charley Grapewin, Mickey Rooney, John Carradine
mpressive water-splashed, three-dimensional title work opens “Captains Courageous,” joined by rousing orchestral music from Franz Waxman for this famous Rudyard Kipling adventure. The acting is sublime, with Spencer Tracy earning an Academy Award for Best Actor as a poignant role model for a snobbish child who must learn respect, responsibility, and purpose, and for a tycoon who must learn to be a better father. It’s a memorable project filled with drama, seafaring action, and heartbreak, also receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Picture of 1937.
Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew), an incredibly wealthy, spoiled child, basks in the luxuries his father provides. He relishes in showing off to his friends during Easter vacation, but also uses his monetary persuasions and connections for extortion – to wickedly bully other kids into doing things for him. The limitless source of cash hasn’t dulled his intelligence with blackmail, even though his book smarts are severely lacking. When he resorts to bribing adults too (the history teacher Bob Tyler, played by Donald Briggs), it’s evident that a serious lesson is in order. His father, Frank (Melvyn Douglas), is too busy with work to give proper instruction to the boy, but he’s incredibly understanding when it comes to being told he isn’t raising his son correctly. Miraculously, he takes the advice from the school and Mr. Tyler with open arms, deciding to get closer to his child and be a more attentive parent. It’s an odd turn, considering stories like these generally result in the rearing decreasing in quality under the stresses of dictation.
The two Cheynes board a ship for a little getaway to Europe, from which Harvey accidentally falls overboard. He’s rescued by simple seaman Manuel Fidello (Spencer Tracy) and brought aboard a fishing vessel captained by Disko Troop (Lionel Barrymore). In this new environment, Harvey quickly discovers he can no longer give orders – he’s moreover shocked to discover the schooner has no intention of journeying to New York to return him to his father, instead staying at sea for three months before docking in Massachusetts. He refuses to work at first, even though the captain offers him an insultingly measly three dollars per month to help with chores. A short-lived hunger strike doesn’t improve matters either. The stubborn Harvey is certain he’s been kidnapped. Manuel’s put in charge of refining the boy, a task he couldn’t desire less; however, it’s not long before the two develop a powerful bond that will fill the voids for the father and son relationships they never had.
Spencer Tracy delivers a superb performance as the reluctant but unquestionably inspiring father figure, brimming with ideal values, morals, work ethics, and courage. Despite his stilted Portuguese/English dialect, with the “s” absent from his verbs and notable reluctance to use the article “the,” his tutoring in honest labor and recreational singing is enough to cure the most bullheaded of souls. Talks of heaven and religion lead to lessons in honesty when Harvey still doesn’t realize that cheating isn’t the path to success. It ends in a few tears (the best scene in the movie) when Manuel sticks up for his “Little Fish” – it’s a well-learned exercise from a man as influential and admirable as Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”