Sunday, April 2, 2017

Captains Courageous

Captains Courageous; drama, USA, 1937; D: Victor Fleming, S: Freddie Bartholomew, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, Charley Grapewin, Mickey Rooney, John Carradine

Harvey Cheyne (12) is the spoiled child of New York millionaire Frank Cheyne. Harvey is so used to the power of his father that he uses and exploits his fatherly instinct to persuade him to do whatever he wants. When he tries to blackmail a student in his private school and bribe a professor, Frank decides to teach Harvey a lesson on a ship. However, Harvey falls into the sea and is rescued by fisherman Manuel. Since the ship is suppose to spend three months in the Atlantic, the fishermen intend to have Harvey help them on board until they reach land. Harvey again tries to cheat in order to win a bet in fishing against Jack, but Manuel refuses this kind of behavior and scorns him. Eventually, Harvey finds a mentor in Manuel, but he drowns during a storm. Back on land, Harvey, now mature, is reunited with his father.

"Captain Courageous" is today brought up only as a footnote in film lexicons as being the movie that secured Spencer Tracy's first Oscar as best actor, a treat he would repeat again the following year with "Boys Town" where he plays a similar role of a mentor to a kid, yet other than that, this sea drama does not hold up well with the flow of time nor does director Victor Fleming ever rise to the occasion, settling only for a good, though standard and predictable allegory of a spoiled kid being taught a lesson when he has to spend some time doing humble, hard labor. The 12-year old Freddie Bartholomew is great in the leading role of Harvey who basically self-taught himself to use his rich father as a magic wand to get whatever he wants, ranging from either sweet talking to him or playing a victim, trying to enrage him into hating his "enemies", and thus this opening act still seems relevant and applies to behavior of spoiled, rich kids.

Tracy shows up some half an hour into the film, and he really delivers a very good performance, but it is hindered a bit by the disappointing, archaic decision to have his character basically be a caricature lower-class immigrant who uses broken, improper English in his sentences ("You crazy. Nobody bad around here. You gonna' work or no?"; "Hey? What you doing?"; "I can do this as long as you can"), who thus doesn't have that much wisdom as the authors intended. Manuel works the best when he bonds with Harvey on a humorous level ("Don't laugh! You laugh no good! I-I-I-I-e.... Like a seagull!"; when teaching him how to prepare a bait for fishing, he goes: "This fish don't go to school and don't learn French, but he pretty smart!") yet gets heavy handed when he uses some typical, banal Christian preaching about the "fisherman and the savior" from that time. The writing could have been better, since it develops its message in a thin, simplistic way, though the story still impresses with its idealism and a few exciting sea sequences, such as when two ships almost collide with each other during the storm. Not a classic, yet still a good moral lesson.


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