CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS, Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 novel, became the 9th most-attended movie of 1937, drawing critical praise and an Academy Award for Best Actor to Spencer Tracy. The $6,800,000 gross made MGM happy that their $1,600,000 had been wisely invested, the laurel from peers put the self-critical Tracy’s concerns about his performance to rest and critics allowed a respite from their usual tiresome grousing. The money was reinvested, the applause echoed away, the ‘experts’ resumed their sniping. But the memory of the story and its characters held firm as one of the era’s favorite adventure sagas, like Mutiny On The Bounty, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Gunga Din, a touchstone coming-of-age tale for a generation and their children. One French reviewer for “Paris Soir” summed it up: “One must be insensitive to resist the profound emotion of this film.” *
Young ‘Harvey Cheyne’ (Freddie Bartholomew) is the epitome of a spoiled brat. The ignored son of a wealthy shipping magnate (Melvyn Douglas), his world and world-view turn literally upside down when he tumbles off a liner into the Atlantic. Fate, in the guileless form of fisherman ‘Manuel Fidello’ (Tracy) has lessons in store for the boy, taught by Manuel and the crew of the fishing schooner the Portuguese-American works on. Crusty ‘Capt. Disko Troop’ (Lionel Barrymore) will see Harvey gets back to shore and ‘civilization’ but not until the ‘We’re Here’ has finished its three-month run plying the Grand Banks off Newfoundland; the arrogant kid is signed on to earn his keep.
Salt abounds; besides the genial Tracy and growling Barrymore, the crew includes veteran scenery chewers Charley Grapewin and John Carradine as well as 15-year-old Mickey Rooney. Fine work from all; it takes a while to put up with Bartholomew’s character until he wises up, and to adjust to Tracy with a different look and accent, but you’re won over.
The trio of screenwriters (John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly and Dale Van Every) updated the story and tweaked the conclusion (to effect) and direction was entrusted to proven hard-charger Victor Fleming. Harold Rosson was the cinematographer and while the bulk of the picture was done at the studio, the exciting 2nd unit footage of sailing schooners at furious work was shot off the California coast, in the Florida Keys and in the water off Mazatlan, Mexico. Other exteriors were done in Canada (Newfoundland and Nova Scotia) and Massachusetts, in Gloucester. Franz Waxman composed a suitably robust score.
“Say, sometimes a song so big and sweet inside, I-I I just can’t get ’em out. And then I look up at stars and maybe cry, it feels so good. Don’t you never feel like this?…No, I guess you don’t. …My father, when he alive, he made better songs than me! Songs about the sun and the sea. Songs about the clouds. Big songs, about the wind and the storms. And little songs too, about the tip on my mother’s nose. Oh, my father, he feel beautiful inside.”
Along with Tracy’s shoo-in win, Oscar nominations went up for Best Picture, Screenplay and Film Editing. 116 minutes, with Oscar O’Shea (rival skipper ‘Cushman’), Samuel McDaniel (‘Doc’, the cook) Jack La Rue, Billy Gilbert and in uncredited bits quick-spot Leo G. Carroll and Dennis O’Keefe.
* 1937 delivered a slate of grand adventures—The Prisoner of Zenda, Lost Horizon, The Hurricane, The Prince And The Pauper and Knight Without Armour. And for good measure Wee Willie Winkie (Kipling), Souls At Sea, Elephant Boy (yet more Kipling) and The Soldier And The Lady.
Tracy: “I researched the accent…and thought I’d worked up a beaut until they brought a real Portuguese-American fisherman to me…I tried out my exotic new accent on him. I said “Now, would you say ‘leetle feesh’? and he said “No, I’d say ‘little fish.'” So in the film, I probably have the most un-Portuguese accent in history.” “I was positive I was doing the worst job of my life. I just felt sure I wouldn’t surmount the singing, the dialect, and the curled hair.”