Based on Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated novel, Victor Fleming’s Captains Courageous (1937) is a life-affirming - if glossy - sea epic about the fabled travels of a young boy, destined to grow up fast. After proving he cannot be trusted by fabricating a tall tale about his schoolmaster, spoiled rich kid, Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew) is taken on a world cruise by his well-meaning father (Melvyn Douglas) as a way of procuring some quality father/son bonding time. Mr. Cheyne is a captain of industry; alas, also a single parent, feeling a genuine sense of guilt, perhaps even more than duty, upon reconsidering just how much time he has spent away from Harvey. Unfortunately for father and son, half way across their ocean sojourn, the ship encounters a gale; young Harvey is thrown from the luxury liner but saved from drowning by Manuel Fidello (Spencer Tracy), a Portuguese fisherman who makes up songs with his concertina in between catching fish. Manuel takes Harvey back to his schooner, captained by Disko (Lionel Barrymore) and populated by a formidable roster of Metro’s finest contract players: Charles Grapewin, as dotty, Uncle Salters, John Carradine (borrowed from Fox) as the forthright and stern, Long Jack, and, Mickey Rooney, far too mature for his age, as the cabin boy, Dan - a superb throwaway cameo.
Captains Courageous must rank among the finest achievements in cinema, and not just those made at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. That is saying quite a lot for a studio known in its heyday for such titanic efforts as The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Marie Antoinette (1938) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). It is virtually impossible to sit through Fleming’s incredibly heart-wrenching and meticulously orchestrated coming-of-age four hanky weepy without breaking out the Kleenex. While too few movies aimed at the youth market today plum and prime children with any credibility at all, and virtually none are brave enough to offer a frank outlook to benefit the young by ringing genuine emotions from their impressionable ‘safe-space’ emotionally constricted psyches, instead, devoted to the interminable coating of life’s harsher truths with unrealistic soft candy shells of faux incredulity, Captains Courageous is a movie made by a guy’s guy; Victor Fleming not yet past his prime to have forgotten the potency and impact genuine loss can have on reshaping a young boy’s perspectives; the child becoming a man before our very eyes. Harvey’s burgeoning maturity is nurtured by the unlikeliest of friendships, carefully cultivated by a tough, though compassionate, surrogate in lieu of the patriarchal influence he otherwise genuinely lacks at home. Alas, this too is cruelly taken away by a twist of fate.
Captains Courageous is both sobering and uplifting, thanks to Freddie Bartholomew’s astute pivotal performance as the spoiled rich kid cum sage seeker of life. The conversion Bartholomew subjects his alter ego to, is a masterful display, put forth by a sadly forgotten child star, once considered a rival – if not a better – of Mickey Rooney. Time and Rooney’s own enduring cinematic legacy (making the successful transition from pint-size powerhouse to enigmatic teen idol, and later, the diminutive savant of such children’s classics as Pete’s Dragon and The Black Stallion) have unfairly eclipsed Bartholomew’s reputation. But lest we forget, here was a boy of rare qualities who could appear opposite such luminaries as Garbo, Lionel Barrymore and Judy Garland, delving into an extraordinary wellspring of uncannily adult emotions in Anna Karenina, Little Lord Fauntleroy and David Copperfield (all three movies made and released in 1935) and distinctly hold his own. For a brief wrinkle in time, Bartholomew was easily MGM’s male counterpoint to Fox’s Shirley Temple; a prepubescent box office dynamo with a screen presence and the acting chops of a seasoned professional twice or three times his natural age.
It remains one of Hollywood’s artistic tragedies to reconsider what Bartholomew’s career might have been if not for a crippling custody dispute between his birth parents. Both mismanaged his earning potential, causing a devoted aunt step in and take custody of Bartholomew in 1937. The aunt had her own agenda, petitioning L.B. Mayer for a higher salary, in part due to Bartholomew’s staggering success in Captains Courageous. Mayer, however, was no fool. Nor was he about to pay more for goods already acquired at the going rate: Bartholomew’s loss/Mickey Rooney’s gain. After Bartholomew’s aunt threatened to break Freddie’s contract, Mayer’s interest in the pint-sized actor dramatically cooled. A stalemate between the aunt and Mayer caused Bartholomew to be overlooked for two splashy productions - Rudyard Kipling's Kim, and Thoroughbreds Don't Cry.
Bartholomew’s appearance in either film likely would have catapulted him to even greater heights as a child star. By 1942, the damage incurred was irreversible. Bartholomew did not make another picture of note after his loan out in 1938 to 2oth Century-Fox for director, Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Kidnapped (Fox’s thinly disguised attempt to recapture the glory of Captains Courageous). More B-budget fodder followed; Bartholomew’s appeal further afflicted by the onset of puberty and his spiking to a height of nearly six feet – decidedly a child no more. By the mid-1940’s, conscription put a period to Bartholomew’s film career. At the age of eighteen he entered military service, severely injuring his back while working in aircraft maintenance. Seven months of painful rehabilitation led to his early discharge from active service in 1944.
As is the case with far too many child stars, Bartholomew was never again to scale such dizzying heights in popularity. The Town Went Wild, a 1944 B-comedy marked a seven year hiatus for the actor, bookended by Bartholomew’s disastrous attempt to break into live theater and a near-fatal car accident that almost paralyzed him. He wed the first of three wives, Maely Daniele, in 1946 and spent the rest of the forties waffling in undistinguished movie cameos; forming a brief nightclub act with Maely, moderately successful in Australia. By 1949, Bartholomew had reinvented himself as a fledgling television performer and host; later, showing remarkable clairvoyance by producing such popular entertainments as The Andy Griffith Show, and the soap operas, As The World Turns, The Edge of Night and Search for Tomorrow for Benton & Bowles; a New York advertising agency he would eventually be made Vice President of in 1964.
Captains Courageous would be nothing at all without Bartholomew’s extraordinary performance as Harvey Cheyne. But the production also carefully surrounds Bartholomew with an impressive roll call of Metro’s finest thespians, beginning with Spencer Tracy. Tracy never considered Manuel Fidello among his finest performances – despite the fact it won him his first of two back-to-back Best Actor Academy Awards; perhaps, impacted by Joan Crawford’s rather glib assessment as she passed the makeup department while Tracy was having his hair tightly curled, muttering, “Good God, it’s Harpo Marx!” I’ll admit, for a whole of fifteen seconds after Tracy’s Portuguese fisherman first appears on the screen his affected accent – more Yiddish than Portuguese, and sporting unnaturally twirled ringlets – left me momentarily befuddled. But then Tracy kicks in with some of his most understated and earnest acting; his soothing, but well-founded counseling taking on a quaintly brusque appeal; the ballast in Harvey’s burgeoning admiration for Manuel affecting anyone young enough to have fallen in love with an elderly mentor, or, old enough to recall a special someone who brought out the clarity and perspective from their youthful angst and confusions during that critical juncture we all face in our early personal transitions from child to adult.
Captains Courageous hits the audience on an emotional gut level. Manuel’s hellish demise, dragged to the bottom of the ocean by collapsed rigging during a powerful storm at sea, even as Harvey desperately tries to keep his best friend’s head afloat; Bartholomew’s wounded, frayed and tearful disbelief, and later, his angelic solemnity in prayer inside a chapel, reunited with his father, who has only just begun to comprehend what their friendship meant to the boy, are indelibly etched vignettes, as truthful and emotionally satisfying as anything ever achieved at the movies. After Tracy won his Oscar, he was circumspect about the honor, “Well, I got away with it. Want to know why? …because of Freddie. Because of that kid’s performance; because he sold it ninety-eight percent. The kid had to believe in Manuel, or Manuel wasn’t worth a quarter. The way he would look at me, believe every word I said, made me believe in it myself. I've never said this before, and I’ll never say it again. Freddie Bartholomew’s acting is so fine and so simple and so true that it’s way over people’s heads. It’ll only be by thinking back two or three years from now that they'll realize how great it was.”
Captains Courageous opens with a brief scene to illustrate Harvey’s deviousness; blaming an innocent headmaster for his expulsion from school; his father’s unquestioning faith in his son’s accusations, leading Mr. Cheyne to embark upon an extended cruise with Harvey in tow. Mr. Cheyne is a captain of industry; wealthy but distracted by matters of business and entrusting Harvey’s upbringing so far to a private school and the various staff who populate his lavishly appointed manor. Nevertheless, Harvey has grown up wild, or rather, bratty and undisciplined, believing he is entitled to this life of privilege in lieu of a strong patriarchal influence to show him what it means to really be a man. In Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Harvey has both a father and a mother; the issue of parental neglect, perhaps, more glaring. But in the movie, Mr. Cheyne is a widower; kindly, invested and empathetic, but just too busy building a legacy for his son to inherit without first realizing the child needs a solid base to be worthy of the honor. Father and son set sail for Europe. But Harvey, playing a deceitful game of ‘hide and seek’, inadvertently slips from the ship’s deck and topples overboard into rough seas; his frantic cries to be saved are drowned out by the sound of crashing waves and the thunderous call of the ship’s whistles.
A short while later Harvey is picked up by Manuel in a rowboat. Ever stubborn, and now wet, cold and angry, Harvey orders Manuel to take him to his father. Alas, the two are in the middle of nowhere; the luxury liner having sailed away without so much as a second thought to return in search of him. And Manuel is but a sailor on a nearby schooner traversing the waters in search of fish. Their journey will take many months. Upon returning to the schooner, Capt. Disko makes it emphatically clear to Harvey he will not turn his vessel around and sacrifice the fishing season – ergo, their livelihood – merely to reunite Harvey with his father. The boy can stay on and become a member of the crew until the season is over. What? Manual labor? At first, Harvey is as belligerent as ever. He orders Disko to return him to his father’s ship. The gruff Disko slaps the boy down to teach him a lesson; a shock to Harvey, who likely has never been disciplined in his life. Harvey’s next move is to plan his escape in one of the small rowboats chained to the ship’s bow. This incurs Disko’s considerable wrath and does even less to ingratiate Harvey to the rest of the crew; first mate, Long Jacks, old salt, Uncle Salters and matter-of-fact cabin boy, Dan.
However, with a little friendly patience and understanding from Manuel, Harvey begins to change his tune. Mulishness gives way to personal satisfaction, Harvey investing himself in the daily chores and becoming an integral part of the crew. Gradually, he gains their respect of these hard-working men through his deeds and learns what it means to be one in a company of brave sea-faring men. Manuel is the father Harvey has never known; an adult male figure intensely interested in his welfare and upbringing. As such, Harvey falls under a child’s spell of worshipping his mentor. As time wears on, he also begins to entertain ideas about joining Disko’s crew on a permanent basis; something Disko sincerely promises to consider once they make port. Tragedy strikes when the schooner is mortally wounded during a perilous storm at sea. In a desperate attempt to free the ship from its capsized mast, threatening to overturn and drag the ship to the bottom of the sea, Manuel becomes entangled in its heavy rigging. Harvey climbs atop the fallen mast and grasps at the soaked lapels of Manuel’s coat, feverishly trying to keep his fallen friend’s head afloat. Disko wagers Manuel’s legs have already been severely dislocated and on Manuel’s orders, Disko cuts the rigging free from the mast, knowing it will drag Manuel to his death beneath the waves.
The loss is devastating to all, but particularly to Harvey who looks on in stung disbelief as the only real friend he has ever known slips beneath the water. Later, after the vessel is secure, Disko and Dan try to comfort Harvey, alas, to no avail. Far from belligerently rejecting their kindnesses, Harvey merely confesses to simply wishing to be left alone. Disko makes for port, realizing the only thing that may snap the boy from his grief is a reunion with his real father. Mr. Cheyne is overjoyed to learn his son did not drown at sea and rushes to be reunited with him, only to discover Harvey has been changed by his experiences at sea. He is ever more the man now; prematurely aged in his outlook on life and death; Mr. Cheyne comforting his son inside a church while caught in thoughtful prayer, still mourning Manuel. After some awkward consternation, Mr. Cheyne elects to respect Harvey’s friendship; also, assuming his responsibility for having failed the boy He vows to never again make the same mistake. Harvey has returned to him – a second chance by the gracious whim of fate and God’s good graces. The boy still needs guidance. But even more invaluable, he requires his love and compassion – in short: he needs a father. As Mr. Cheyne prepares to take Harvey home, the two regard one another as equals; Manuel’s memory lingering in our hearts as the screen fades to black.
It is impossible to watch Captains Courageous without succumbing to the emotionally satisfying groundswell of its life-teaching precepts. Despite changing times and tastes, John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly and Dale Van Every’s screenplay is so supremely invested in the universals of life the picture retains its perspective as a heartrendingly relevant melodrama, once seen, never to be entirely expunged. Victor Fleming, who primarily cut his teeth on a series of Clark Gable movies, is a masterful understudy of this particular brand of male-bonding. In retrospect, with Captains Courageous, Fleming – either consciously or subliminally – has given us another Clark Gable movie without Gable in it. In absence of Hollywood’s then reigning ‘king’, Captains Courageous is immeasurably blessed to have Freddie Bartholomew. As fine as the rest of the cast is, they pale to the uncanny command Bartholomew illustrates throughout; his subtle conversion from scheming brat to sincere contrition is a spellbinding piece of screen acting. Kipling is right up Fleming’s alley and he employs his own inimitable stroke of genius on this memorable excursion – the tale infused with great heart and, of course, superbly staged action sequences for which all Fleming films are duly noted. Captains Courageous is quite possibly the greatest coming-of-age story ever committed to celluloid. Easily, it remains the high water mark in studio-made movie-land magic; a film about the brotherhood of the sea and a must see/must own experience to be forever treasured.
I am going to sincerely champion the Warner Archive gets a hold of Captains Courageous and fast track it for a Blu-ray release. The film is so deserving of one. But for now, Warner Home Video’s DVD remains an unexpected delight. Considering the elements are well over seventy years old, this DVD holds up spectacularly; the gray scale, impeccably rendered with deep solid blacks and subtle tonality throughout. Whites are generally clean. Age-related artifacts are kept to a bare minimum. Certain scenes appear ever so slightly softly focused – and there are several instances (mostly during rear projection and/or stock shots) marginally suffering from heavier than usual grain. I suspect this is as it should be, although I am equally as certain contemporary video stabilization techniques could do something to make the transitions between stock footage and studio-bound process work more seamless without sacrificing the indigenous integrity of the image. For now, at least, this standard DVD transfer will surely not disappoint. The Dolby Digital mono audio has been cleaned up and is well-represented at an adequate listening level. Extras are the real disappointment. We get two unrelated short subjects and the original theatrical trailer. What? No audio commentary? Poo-poo, that! Otherwise, Captains Courageous is one of the all-time greats. Very highly recommended, indeed!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)