Sunday, January 6, 2013

Captains Courageous (1937)

Director: Victor Fleming


MGM captures the spirit of Rudyard Kipling’s tale about a privileged boy learning lessons of the real world in the Victor Fleming directed adaptation of Captains Courageous. Starring three generations of Hollywood actors including the well-traveled Lionel Barrymore, the ever rising star in Spencer Tracy, and one of the business’ larger child stars in Freddie Bartholomew, this picture would be a coming of age-type film with the touches of boyhood adventures wrapped together in a charming package.

Captains Courageous is an adventure picture about a spoiled boy who is rescued by fishermen and learns to change his perceptions towards life as for the first time he gets a taste of the real world. Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew) is an overly spoiled son of a rather absent father (Melvyn Douglas). While on a trans-Atlantic voyage with his father Harvey falls overboard and is rescued by an American/Portuguese fisherman, Manuel (Spencer Tracy), who takes him under his wing to teach him the proper way to work and act around his fellow fishermen, much to the chagrin of Harvey. At first being a bothersome, privileged runt to the captain (Lionel Barrymore) and his men, Harvey with the guidance of his new father figure in Manuel matures and comes to love this life and camaraderie of fishermen before being brought back to the mainland and his father.

Tragically Manuel’s life is taken by the sea in a violent storm while on the journey to return Harvey home, emotionally disturbing Harvey, losing the closest thing to a real father he has had. Harvey has trouble communicating with his real father until finally paying respects to the man that change Harvey into a boy striving to one day be a mature man.

The picture itself is well shot and directed by the veteran filmmaker Victor Fleming. With his previous work on the motion picture adaptation of Treasure Island in 1934 Fleming for the second time had produced a successful film version of boy centered adventures. His direction helps to draw audiences into the story of how a spoiled boy can be taken in by meek fisherman teaching him how to be a man is a simple, yet exciting way. Fleming had been directing major films for years with MGM to this point, but his greatest contributions were still ahead of him in the coming year of 1939 with two all-time classics The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind.

Bartholomew, Barrymore, and Tracy
Spencer Tracy, though playing second fiddle to the Freddie Bartholomew provides the heart and soul to the story. In fact Tracy at first declined the picture partly because of the fact that the role was not the center of the film and thought he would be overshadowed by the role of Harvey. He partly also did not want to play Manuel because he did not know how to produce a Portuguese accent and did not want to curl his hair for the role. All that aside Tracy would take on the part of Manuel with a Yiddish accent as it was the best accent he could produce. Manuel would be the guiding light of the picture and would win Tracy his first Academy Award for best actor. Amusing enough the statuette he would receive at the ceremony in fact read “Dick Tracy,” an issue quickly mended by the Academy.

Child actor Freddie Bartholomew had been on the rise to stardom with ever since his appearance in the title role of David Copperfield in 1935. The success of Captains Courageous would seem to cement his standing as a bona fide star in the stable of MGM stars. With this major rise in success Freddie’s aunt, his guardian at the time, would demand a hefty raise for the child actor, a dispute that put Bartholomew out of work with the studio for roughly a year, and when he returned landed him more minor roles with Hollywood’s most powerful studio, and by 1942 would finish his time at MGM. It goes to show that no star was bigger than Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer during the golden age of Hollywood.

Lionel Barrymore at the time was still a major name in the acting community, but was relegated to supporting roles. Not to say he was a poor actor by any means. Barrymore was still a wonderful actor, playing rather memorable parts for years to follow, but not seeming to be given chances to play major meaty roles as he once had. Here Barrymore would play a hardnosed, but softhearted captain that eventually takes a liking to the main character of Harvey. What Captain Courageous marks for Barrymore is one of the final appearances of Lionel playing a free-standing role. Degenerative arthritis was taking its toll on the legendary actor eventually crippling him. In films to come Barrymore would need the aid of support to stand in pictures, or in some cases, such as It’s a Wonderful Life, play the part entirely sitting down.

MGM proved to have another hit on their hands. Aside for Tracy’s win for best actor Captains Courageous would also be nominated for best editing, best writing, and best picture at the Academy Awards. Critics would praise the picture for adaption the novel, even with the changes made to the story, mainly including the change of Harvey from being a 15 year old to that of a 10 year old boy. Tracy proved to be the biggest news to come out the picture as his star stature was booming at the time of the film and continued to do so in the coming years.

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