Judge Joe Armenio goes fishing with Rudyard Kipling and Spencer Tracy.
"Yo ho, little fish, don't cry, don't cry."
Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous, adapted by screenwriters John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly and Dale Van Every and directed brusquely by Victor Fleming, is both an exotic and briny adventure story for boys and a rather sentimental morality play. The film was a big hit in its day (1937); it was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, which is not especially surprising, given the Academy's weakness, then and now, for straightforward epics with a respectable overlay of wholesome ideas (it lost out to The Life of Emile Zola, but Spencer Tracy won Best Actor). It holds up today as a heartfelt tearjerker, saved (barely) from mediocrity by the force of Kipling's conviction and Tracy's big-hearted performance.
Facts of the Case
Harvey (Freddie Bartholomew, Anna Karenina) is the spoiled only son of a widowed tycoon (Melvyn Douglas, Ninotchka), used to getting his way through bribes and commands, forever bragging about his status to bored and resentful peers. He leaves his swanky boarding school after an unpleasant incident and joins his father on a transatlantic voyage, only to accidentally fall overboard and be saved by Portuguese fisherman Manuel (Spencer Tracy, Fury). Manuel takes Harvey back to his boat, captained by old salt Disko (Lionel Barrymore, It's a Wonderful Life). Rich kid and fisherman butt heads at first, but a tentative friendship ensues and you can bet that Harvey emerges a better boy.
Over the years, critics have had a good deal of fun at Tracy's expense over this performance, mocking his variable accent but, really, who cares? Does anyone watch a movie like this to hear an accurate representation of Portuguese speech patterns? What matters is that Tracy is a vital, humane presence at the center of the film.
Of course, Manuel stands at the heart of Kipling's ideological universe and the ideas here are not subtle ones. The urban world of modern capitalism is heartless and soulless; Harvey's father, while well-meaning, is so concerned with business that he has no time to be a real father. The boy knows nothing but money and status, and behaves accordingly. He learns how to connect with other people from simple fishermen who have no entanglements with the modern world, whose lives are dictated by the demands of their small community and the rhythms of nature. While Harvey is flailing about, rootless and unable to connect, Manuel is at peace, at one with the sea, with the creatures he makes his living catching and with his fellow fisherman. He is totally unintellectual, instinctive, and intensely and unpretentiously ethical. He produces art spontaneously, composing impromptu songs on his hurdy-gurdy, and he practices an untutored but deeply felt Christianity that connects him to the memory of his dead father. At one point, he reminds Harvey that some of Christ's apostles were fisherman and it becomes clear to the audience that Manuel is intended as a sort of Christ-figure, a means through which this fallen boy can redeem himself. Expressed in cold prose, these ideas seem simple, sentimental, and high-handedly moral, and at times the film comes off as oppressively earnest. But Tracy's Manuel is so humane and vigorous that it all seems forgivable, and the script eventually moves to an emotional climax. There's also something strange and interesting about the intensity of the relationship between Manuel and Harvey. The boy develops a lover's jealousy, growing uneasy when the fisherman talks about his relationships with women, declaring "I want to be with you" when the prospect of returning to land looms closer. As Leslie Fiedler famously writes in Love and Death in the American Novel, a central theme in American literature (which I think we can expand to contain an American adaptation of Kipling) is the de
sire of men to escape from the realm of women and domestic obligation; freedom can only be obtained in the company of other men, away from the demands of the modern world. Harvey's desperate attempt to "be with" Manuel is a rebellion against cutthroat capitalism, but could it also be a revolt against the distant but inevitable trap of marriage?
Victor Fleming's direction is undistinguished. His brisk, no-nonsense, action-film style is all wrong for this type of story, which derives its force from the portrayal of the community of fishermen. Instead of lingering over the details of their lives, the very rituals which tie them to nature and to each other, Fleming always seems in a hurry to move on to the next bit of business. As I watched Captains Courageous, I found myself imagining an alternate version directed by a master like John Ford, one in which Manuel's songs are loving, extended set-pieces and life on the fishing boat is shown through a series of languorous anecdotes. The film also has some pacing problems; way too much time is devoted at the beginning to establishing Harvey's awfulness and, by the time he falls overboard, the viewer is so sick of him that he doesn't care much if the boy is rescued or not.
Warner Brothers has done a typically good job with the transfer; they've consistently managed to make films that are pushing seventy look about as good as possible. The original mono soundtrack is provided along with a French dub. As with many of Warner's releases, they provide as extras shorts from around the time of the film's original release. These are more fun when they bear some direct relationship (usually parodic) to the feature film, but the shorts we get here make no reference to Captains Courageous. (They were both made in 1937, which suggests that they might have played on the same program as Captains, but we're not told anything about them.) "The Little Maestro" is a one-reeler which features Jerry Bergen as a silent violinist who crashes a nightclub and attempts to entertain for his supper. "Little Buck Cheeser" is a cute cartoon about a little mouse and his friends who, inspired by Buck Rogers, build a rocket ship and travel to the moon in order to see if it is made out of green cheese. Finally, there's a 12-minute segment from the radio program Leo Is on the Air, and an advertisement for Captains Courageous that provides an interesting glimpse at promotional techniques circa 1937 (it consists mainly of breathless narration and clips from the film).
Some historians would probably argue that Captains Courageous is an example of a Depression-era entertainment that pleased crowds by asserting salt-of-the-earth values as opposed to the heartless capitalism of the rich. That interpretation seems a little simplistic to me, since audiences of the 1930s were not one-dimensionally opposed to the upper class; they also wanted films that allowed them to escape into the fantasy world of the wealthy (screwball comedy, anyone?). In any event, bringing the high-falutin' down to earth has always been a favorite sport of Americans in good times and bad, and Captains Courageous does so in an admirably humane, if maudlin, way.
Don't cry, little fish. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Short Film: "The Little Maestro"
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