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Laramie Movie Scope:
Captains Courageous (1937)

A classic tale of men and the sea

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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February 21, 2010 -- “Captains Courageous” is a classic film about classic ships based on a classic book (adapted from a novel by Rudyard Kipling). It is both a film about high adventure and heartbreak. There is no better film about sailing than this. There is no better coming of age story than this. Loaded with Hollywood's finest talent, it marked the first of Spencer Tracy's Academy Award-winning performances for his unforgettable portrayal of Portuguese fisherman Manuel Fidello. He had back-to-back Oscar wins a year later when he won another for his Father Flannigan role in “Boys Town.” “Captains Courageous” was also nominated for best picture, editing and screenplay Oscars. Tracy actually didn't like this particular performance until he won the Oscar. For one thing, his Portuguese accent was actually a fake Yiddish accent. No matter, he was great in this role.

Freddie Bartholomew, who would star in yet another movie based on a classic book the following year, “Kidnapped,” plays spoiled rich kid Harvey Cheyne here in “Captains Courageous.” His father is played by one of the best actors in Hollywood history, Melvyn Douglas, who would later win acting's triple crown, multiple Oscars to go with Tony and Emmy awards. Harvey falls overboard and is rescued by Manuel Fidello, who is fishing in a dory. Manuel takes Harvey back to the Gloucester fishing schooner We're Here. Harvey is unable to persuade the captain of the We're Here, Disko Troop (played by Hollywood royalty Lionel Barrymore) to take him back to land. Troop thinks the kid is telling tall tales about his father's wealth. When Harvey continues to make demands, showing Captain Disko no respect at all, the captain reluctantly smacks Harvey upside his stubborn little head. Harvey finally is forced to realize who is boss on this boat. This is a scene you'll probably never see in a modern movie. It was no big deal in 1937.

Harvey is forced to grow up fast to survive the hard life of a fisherman making a living on the Grand Banks. Manuel becomes Harvey's substitute father during the months at sea. He also becomes Harvey's protector when he runs afoul of another fisherman, Long Jack, played by John Carradine, another legendary actor who had a very long and prolific Hollywood career, appearing in more than 340 movies and TV shows in more than 50 years. He would appear in a several other great films, including “Stagecoach,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “The Ten Commandments.”

This film is notable for its great sailing footage. A new type of camera setup called an “iron egg” was developed for this film to counteract the motion of rough seas. A 110-ft. two-masted schooner, Gretha F. Spinney, became Disko Troop's ship We're Here for the film, which was shot in Gloucester, Newfoundland and off the coast of California, as well as on Hollywood sound stages. For thrilling race scenes, the Mariner, a former Gloucester fishing ship owned by John Barrymore stood in for the rival ship Jenny Cushman. These two magnificent ships under full sail, close hauled, straining into the wind, roaring along the Grand Banks is a thing of awe-inspiring beauty and power. These scenes are as good as any America's Cup racing footage you'll ever see. The actors are wonderful, but these two majestic ships are the real stars of this film.

Tragedy happens at the end of this memorable race, and that turns this story into a real tear-jerker. If these scenes don't make you cry, you've got no heart. This is all a part of growing up, of course, and Harvey does grow up before he finally is reunited with his father, who is amazed at the transformation of his formerly bratty son. The quiet scenes between Harvey, his father, Captain Troop and Troop's son, (played by Mickey Rooney, probably the only actor from this film still alive and active after all these years) are memorable. Captain Troop has a quiet dignity about him. Even though he is not really wealthy by the standards of a man like Harvey's father, he was like royalty in Gloucester in those days. Captain Troop is an older man and wise. He helps ease the reconciliation of the boy and his father. The film ends well. This film rates an A.

A bit of trivia: Gene Reynolds appears in this film as a boy in a print shop. He would later go on to have an illustrious career as an Emmy Award-winning writer, director and producer of such TV series as “Lou Grant” and “MASH.” Also appearing in the film is Leo G. Carroll, who would also go on to have a long and illustrious career in movies and TV, including memorable roles in the TV series “Topper,” (as Cosmo Topper) “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and “The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.” (as Alexander Waverly). Both these men appear in the film in uncredited roles, according to the Internet Movie Database.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2010 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)