Monday, April 5, 2010

1937 - Captains Courageous

Last chance to vote on the next group of Best Picture nominees to which Matt vs. the Academy will direct its focus. It's currently a dead heat, so somebody could theoretically decide the fate of this blog's next couple of weeks with one vote. The poll is over to the right.

Today, I rounded out the 1937 Best Picture race by taking a look at the last of the nominees...

Captains Courageous
Victor Fleming
John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly and Dale Van Every
(based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling)
Freddie Bartholomew, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, Charley Grapewin, Mickey Rooney, John Carradine
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
1 win, for Best Actor (Tracy)

Based on popular British author Rudyard Kipling's 19th century novel, Captains Courageous is the coming of age story of Harvey (Bartholomew), the spoiled, arrogant son of wealthy businessman Frank Cheyne (Douglas). With a deceased mother and a father who has little time for him, Harvey has become quite the brat. But after landing in trouble at school, Cheyne Sr. catches on to his son's Machiavellian ways and vows to spend more time with him to straighten him out. Why he thought bringing his son on a business trip to Europe would help, I don't know. No sooner have the two boarded the ocean liner than Frank deserts his son once more. As predicted, Harvey gets himself into another predicament, but this time the consequences are more serious. He falls overboard.

Picked up by a Portuguese fisherman named Manuel (Tracy), Harvey finds himself trapped aboard a fishing trawler that won't be returning to land for another three months. With no other option than to work with the crew, Harvey learns some valuable life lessons from Manuel who proves to be the father figure he always needed.

There is something very engaging about the first act of Captains Courageous, mostly due to the corrupt nature of such a young boy. Freddie Bartholomew delivers a spectacularly mature performance for a twelve-year-old, displaying his character's evil ways with the kind of simple stoicism that made Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber so fascinating. Of course, Harvey is no thieving terrorist, but it's easy to imagine he might grow up to be one. Sure, he's bratty and his insecurity is clear, but he lies, bribes and manipulates without a second thought.

It's almost disappointing that he has to mend the errors of his ways. He's a far more fascinating character as a budding villain. Unfortunately, the reasons behind how he came to be that way are not explored in any meaningful way apart from the standard he-had-no-role-model excuse. But, I thirsted for a deeper exploration. In any case, Bartholomew still turns in an impressive performance as his character develops, turning on the waterworks several times over.

The middle section of the film drags a little. Once all the excitement and movement of the first few scenes are over, we are left with the relatively simpler boy-learns-how-to-fish story, which is, of course, a metaphor for boy-learns-how-to-live. It's a nice story, don't get me wrong, but a little bland.

Spencer Tracy won the first of his back-to-back Best Actor Oscars for his role as the strong and sensitive Manuel. If you can get past the ridiculous accent, you'll find some powerful moments in his portrayal. Melvyn Douglas, as Harvey's well-meaning but inadequate father, delivers another great performance from a very long and distinguished career. And you can also spot two actors from two fellow 1937 Best Picture nominees: Charley Grapewin, much more suitable here as an old salt than as a Chinese patriarch in The Good Earth, and Billy Gilbert, who delivered my favourite line in One Hundred Men and a Girl, appears, sans funny accent, as a soda jerk.

1 comment:

  1. I find Captains Courageous to be a beautifully modulated coming-of-age adventure story, that succeeds due to the chemistry between the co-leads, Freddie Bartholomew and Spencer Tracy and the emphasis of character and emotion over action by director Victor Fleming. I think that the developmental story of the privileged boy Harvey, spoiled and pampered, is not given the short shrift, and sets up his comeuppance and eventual lessons of abiding friendship over wealth, very well. The scenes of adventure, though not dominant, still are thrillingly filmed.

    Spencer Tracy wasn't overly fond of his portrayal (he has said that Lionel Barrymore deserved his Best Actor Oscar.) I will admit that when we first hear Tracy speak and see his curly haired wig, he sounded and looked like Chico Marx. However, he soon won me over and I wasn't distracted by his accent. Tracy very rarely took on roles requiring him to wear make-up or use accents. He was perhaps the most naturalistic of actors. I remember reading an interview that Roger Ebert did with actor Don Ameche. Ameche marvelled at Tracy's ability to listen to his co-performers when filming scenes with them. He thought he was the best at this. Ameche said that try as he may to emulate Tracy, he always would be rehearsing his next line in the back of his mind.

    Freddie Bartholomew would soon fade from the scene - another child actor who couldn't make the transition to adulthood on screen. He gives one of the best child performances in Captain's Courageous. An exceptional achievement considering the acting style of child performers at the time, where mugging and amateurish line readings were the rule.

    All in all, a fine family film that will also contend for best of '37.