Captains Courageous

Captains Courageous

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew) is the spoiled son of an indulgent absentee father, business tycoon Frank Burton Cheyne (Melvyn Douglas). He is shunned by his classmates at a private boarding school, and eventually suspended for the remainder of the term due to bad behavior. His father realizes that the boy needs closer attention and guidance, so he takes his son with him on a business trip to Europe via a trans-Atlantic steamship.

En route, Harvey, as a result of another display of arrogance, falls overboard in the area of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. He is rescued by a Portuguese-American fisherman, Manuel Fidello (Spencer Tracy), and taken aboard the fishing schooner We’re Here. Harvey fails to persuade captain Disko Troop (Lionel Barrymore) to take him ashore, nor can he convince him of his wealth. However, the captain offers him a low-paid job as part of the crew until they return to port three months later. With no other choice, Harvey eventually accepts. Befriended by Captain Troop’s son, Dan (Mickey Rooney), he begins to learn the ways of working at sea.

Under the guidance of Manuel, and observing his equally tough crew-mates, Harvey thrives, coming to learn that his former practices of cheating, bragging and whining are not an acceptable way of life. He also finds the father figure in Manuel he never had with his own father, and pleads with Manuel to allow him to remain on the We’re Here after their return. In the climactic race back to the Gloucester, Massachusetts port against a rival schooner, the Jennie Cushman, Manuel volunteers to climb to the top of the mast to furl the sail, but is mortally injured when the mast cracks and he is plunged into the water, caught irreversibly in the tangled rope and the topsail canvas. Manuel is cut loose of the ropes to sink below the surface to his death, and Harvey loses his surrogate father and best friend.

Eventually, the schooner returns to port and Harvey is reunited with his father. Rushing to Gloucester, Harvey’s father is surprised to find that his self-centered child has become mature and considerate. Harvey refuses to be comforted by his father, preferring to mourn for Manuel alone, but eventually comes around.

REVIEW:

Back when I was in school, there was a list of books that teachers expected us to read. I think by the time I graduated high school, I believe only 5 or 6 off of that list of nearly 100. One of those that I didn’t get to but still caught my attention was Captains Courageous. To this day, I still haven’t read the book, but I was in a bit of a literary mood today, so I figured why not try the movie?

What is this about?

Based on a novel by Rudyard Kipling, this classic adventure tale stars Spencer Tracy in an Oscar-winning performance as Manuel, an old salt who fishes spoiled, rich brat Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew) out of the drink. When the vessel’s skipper (Lionel Barrymore) puts Harvey to work, the boy chafes at the idea. But crusty Manuel takes the lad under his wing and teaches Harvey invaluable life lessons through patience, forgiveness and resolve.

What did I like?

The more you know. There is a lesson to be learned from watching this film. I won’t spoil what happens to the main character, but I will say that the change he goes through is a vast improvement from where starts the film and just goes to show that a little hard work and humility sometimes is all it takes to get ahead in life.

Rivalry. Amongst fishing boats, there is a rivalry to get the best spots out on the wide open sea to catch fish. As one can imagine, this leads to various captains forging a rivalry. What this film manages to do effectively is portray the friendly rivalry between two of the captains (and their crews), while not straying too far from the main plot to do so.

Father. Spencer Tracy should have been given star credit for this film. He steals the show with his character, Manuel. This guy is charismatic, funny, sympathetic, and takes in Freddie Bartholomew’s character after saving him from drowning. His relationship with the kid is very much like Jim and Mr. Silver in Treasure Planet. The father son dynamic that slowly grows as the film goes on is a feel good aspect of the film.

What didn’t I like?

Harvey. Again, I haven’t read the book, but my good gravy is this Harvey kid a horrible excuse for a human being for most of the film. Often, I have complained about how kids in film are the living embodiment of all that is wrong with our society. With most modern films, I stand by that statement. However, back in the Golden Era of Hollywood, when this was made, annoying kids weren’t the norm, which makes Freddie Bartholomew’s performance that much more ahead of its time, if you will.

Teach a man to fish. Blame my mother for eating almost nothing but fish when she was pregnant with me, but I cannot stand fish! Each time Spencer Tracy’s character said fish in that bad Portuguese accent, it started to grate on me. I appreciate his commitment to the character, but one can only take hearing fish pronounced incorrectly before it becomes too much.

Ethnic cleanse. I hate to bring this up, but it was more than obvious that Spencer Tracy was not Portuguese, and I’m not talking just about his accent. During this time in film history, studious weren’t exactly going out of their way to cast ethnically correct actors, when they can just take a big name actor and give them a tan. Of course, given some of the casting choices these days such as Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger or just about anyone that wasn’t a bad guy in that abhorrent The Last Airbender, it is apparent that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

A nice little classic film, Captains Courageous offers excitement, drama, and comedy, as well as some culture, as this is a film based on a book. However, there are quite a few moments where this flick fails to capture and keep my attention, perhaps because I have become so used to seeing some kind of sea monster or other nautical danger when I watch a film set mostly at sea. Do I recommend this film? Yes, it is a solid classic film. When I read the book, I will be returning to watch this film again in search of the differences, additions, and subtractions. I suggest you try the same.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

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