Saturday, November 16, 2013

Week 13. Sample review. 'Captains Courageous'

"Based on a novel by Rudyard Kipling, this classic adventure tale stars Spencer Tracy in an Oscar-winning performance as Manuel, an old salt who fishes spoiled, rich brat Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew) out of the drink. When the vessel's skipper (Lionel Barrymore) puts Harvey to work, the boy chafes at the idea. But crusty Manuel takes the lad under his wing and teaches Harvey invaluable life lessons through patience, forgiveness and resolve."

--Netflix description of 'Captains Courageous' (1937)


It's impossible to see a movie as it was seen by its first audiences. 'Captains Courageous' was made in 1937, just eight years before I was born. One of its stars won the Best Actor award, but--

We have too much history, think we know too much, are too suspicious or sophisticated or prone to see the movie the way the Depression audiences did.

Picture this. A sailor and a ten year-old boy who is not related to him are alone below decks. They are on a boat whose crew has not seen a woman for months. The man slaps at the boy's butt. Just a joke. The man tells the boy about his plans to make it with a bunch of women when they get to port. The boy asks if he's joking, if he really likes women. The man agrees he really doesn't. He caresses the boy's face and hair, as the boy, in tears, tells the man he never wants to leave him, ever.

Does this sound wholesome to you? It was family fare in 1937. It passed the Hays office decency code of Hollywood and was a movie especially pitched for children. It wasn't a dark plot to recruit kiddies to pedophile perversions! The scene I describe was viewed in 1937 as a natural way for a man and a boy to bond and relate, innocent, warm, and profound.

(I suppose it's a cheap shot to note that Spencer Tracy, the sailor man in the above paragraph, won the Best Actor award in 1938 as well--for his portrayal of the priest Father Flanagan of Boys' Town. Another movie where for all the boys and priests and deep conversation and roughhousing and high spirits, there is never a whiff or hint (in 1938 terms) of anything untoward.)

Or imagine this: a bratty kid is sassing a grown-up and the grown-up coldbloodedly hauls off and gives him a clout on the ear that knocks him off his feet. In 'Captains Courageous', this is understood to be a necessary and important part of Freddie's becoming a man. Today, of course, we are shocked and find it difficult to understand that the 1937 audience would be highly approving of this clout.

It's impossible to watch these movies with a single vision. One always sees them as a citizen of 2010, someone who knows all the scandals, who has heard the very worst about human nature, who would squint long and hard at the notion of a strange man caressing a beautiful child or another man hitting him.

But pretty soon one lets 2010 drift away and settles back into 1937 to enjoy the movies on their own terms as they were meant to be watched.

So, the scene I have made fun of, just as the moviemakers intended, moving, a tearjerker, warm, gentle, funny, and tremendously well-acted by the boy, Freddie Bartholomew, and the sailor man, Spencer Tracy.*

Even more impressive is the turning-point of the movie.** Freddie has cheated in a contest and Spencer Tracy is angry with him. But when a deeply ashamed Freddie apologizes and makes clear that he understands how he has hurt others and how spoiled he has been, Tracy welcomes him back to his society and the ship's society. He throws the boy a real life line, and it's very touching. But, of course, when I say Tracy welcomes him back, please understand that he welcomes him back with literal open arms and caresses, and any viewer watching today has that modern cynicism about potential pedophilia come between him and the full intention of the moviemakers.


This movie had an all-star cast and full thirties production values, but a lot of it is hard to watch today. It breaks into three parts, the way all Hollywood movies are supposed to. In the first act, we see Freddie Bartholomew in action: he's a spoiled, snobbish, manipulative, whiny, bossy, snotty, lying, cheating, blackmailing, no-good brat. Everything depends on Freddie Bartholomew here, and he isn't bad for a kid actor, but he doesn't command the screen either. The writing is flat, the action predictable and stilted.

In the second act, Freddie falls off ocean liner and is picked up by some Gloucester fishermen. One good scene follows another as we see Freddie finally getting a clue about how one might become a decent person--but this act belongs completely to Spencer Tracy who plays the Portuguese crewman who befriends and teaches Freddie. Tracy is everything you want: he's dumb, wise, brave, kind, strong, soft, funny, serious, tough, a pushover, a man among men. By the end of the act, Freddie worships him. So does the audience!

Unfortunately, that's just when Tracy is killed in a shipboard accident. Act 3 tells us how the new Freddie is able to apply what he's learned from Spencer Tracy to his own broken relationship with his father. Freddie's example helps show his father the way to become a real father, just as Tracy's example showed Freddie how to became a real person. But act three, like act one is unbearably trite and sentimental. We watch the action but mentally are rescreening the scenes with the departed Tracy we saw just a few minutes before.

And so the movie ends on the worst of all possible notes: Freddie and his dad are taking the dory, where Tracy made a man of Freddie, and towing it home to California as...a toy, a momento, a petunia planter? While the chauffeur-driven car rolls along, Freddie stretches his arms wide to show his dad how big some of those lunkers were out on the Grand Banks. He thus turns the most important moments of his young life into a cheesy fishing story, and fade, and The End.


'Captains Courageous' is now more time capsule than entertainment, I'm afraid. Except for the extraordinarily good scenes with Spencer Tracy in act two, one watches it mostly in wonder at how quickly ideas, customs, beliefs, film conventions, and conventional wisdom can change. This movie was a hit, somehow, just eight years before I was born.

* Part of the scene is available here: , but the tears are cut and if you want to see them (and Freddie Bartholomew is quite impressive), you will have to go here to about 1:21 and mute the awful music.

**Alas, not available on youtube

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