Sep. 29, 2008
Captains Courageous (1937)
Grade: 84/100

Director: Victor Fleming
Stars: Spencer Tracy, Freddie Bartholomew, Lionel Barrymore

What it's about. In this adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling yarn, Freddie Bartholomew is the spoiled brat pre-teen son of wealthy industrialist Melvyn Douglas. Bartholomew falls overboard from an ocean liner, and is rescued by Spencer Tracy, a fisherman of Portugese descent.

Tracy is a worker on a fishing schooner with salty Lionel Barrymore as captain. Barrymore's son, young Mickey Rooney, also works on the ship, as does Charley Grapewin and long-faced John Carradine. Carradine takes a particular dislike to Bartholomew, who continues to act up and antagonize the crew. Gradually, Bartholomew adjusts to life on the fishing boat, and learns humility and manliness under the tutelege of good-natured father figure Spencer Tracy.

How others will see it. Captains Courageous garnered Tracy his first Best Actor Oscar. The film received three other nods, including a nomination for Best Picture. Adult viewers will be surprised at its quality, which compares favorably with the mediocre children's blockbusters of recent years, such as the Shrek and Harry Potter sequels. Actually, adults will probably enjoy the film more than their children, who prefer colorful and silly cartoons that pander to their short attention spans.

Nonetheless, experienced cinephiles will notice that Bartholomew is perhaps too precocious, even after he's had his comeuppance. He could learn from Rooney, who, in this film at least, never over-acts. Tracy's performance is the most heralded, and although his Portugese fisherman routine sometimes borders on camp, his fatherly concern for Bartholomew is touching. Barrymore, in one of his final films made before he was confined to a wheelchair by arthritis, is unexpectedly convincing as an East Coast fishing captain. Brooding John Carradine is also affecting, particularly once he realizes that Bartholomew can make it as a sailor after all.

How I felt about it. Captains Courageous is of course a morality tale. A child born into the upper class may receive privileges denied those from the lower class. But unearned rewards don't make him better than anyone else, and certainly not better than someone who labors for his daily bread. To become a man, respect must be earned, instead of purchased.

The old saying, "To Be Esteemed, Be Useful" is applicable here. Bartholomew has to demonstrate over time that he is a good fisherman before he will be treated like one. Money has nothing to do with it, particularly when the world is cut off for want of a radio.

Responsibility also comes with manhood. Bartholomew takes his biggest step when he confesses to Carradine that he sabotaged his equipment. An apology won't take the hooks out of Carradine's arms, but it does mean he is no longer hiding behind his paternal figure.

Indeed, he may be more responsible than Captain Barrymore, who risks the crew and cargo in his immature desire to beat a rival schooner to the home port. It goes to show that even the most unlikely people still have some growing up to do.