Captains Courageous

Released:  1937

Cast:  Freddie Bartholomew, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas

Oscar Wins:  Best Actor (Spencer Tracy)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Picture, Best Film Editing (Elmo Veron), Best Writing, Screenplay (Marc Connelly, John Lee Mahin, Dale Van Every)

SUMMARY:  Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew) is the ten-year-old son of an extremely wealthy businessman, Frank Burton Cheyne (Melvyn Douglas), and has spent his entire life in the lap of luxury.  However, Harvey’s mother died some years before, and though Harvey idolizes his father, the two are not close.  Harvey attends a prestigious boarding school, where he uses his father’s money and power to bully and intimidate his classmates – when he wants to be an editor for the school paper, he asks his father to buy a new printing press.  However, he eventually goes too far, and when the headmaster finds out, Harvey is suspended.  His father has to travel to Europe for business, and decides to take Harvey with him on the ocean voyage.  During the voyage, Harvey brags to several boys that he can drink six chocolate ice cream sodas:  he manages to do this, but the subsequent sick feeling causes him to fall off the ship and into the ocean.  He is rescued a short time later by a fisherman named Manuel (Spencer Tracy), who works on a boat called We’re Here.  The ship is captained by Disko Troop (Lionel Barrymore), who sympathizes with the boy, but refuses to take him ashore, as it would wreck the entire fishing trip (and probably the income of all the men aboard).  Thus, Harvey is forced to spend the next three months on the boat with the fisherman.  His attitude quickly draws the anger of most of the men, as Harvey often and openly expresses his opinion of them and their lifestyle.  The captain assigns Manuel as a sort of watchman/teacher to Harvey, and the boy quickly latches on to this new father figure.  As he spends more time on the boat, Harvey begins to appreciate the hard work the men do each day, and his attitude starts to fade.  Manuel also begins to teach him about fishing, while imparting occasional life lessons.

By the time the three months are almost over, Harvey has been fully integrated into the crew, and has even been added to the log as a crewman (making $3.00 a month).  He is extremely close to Manuel, who returns the affection; Manuel, who previously fished alone, now takes Harvey out with him in a dory every day.  Harvey has developed a love of the sea and of fishing, and wants to be as good a fisherman as Manuel.  For the last few days of the trip, the boat heads to an area where the fish are congregating – as well as most other fishing boats.  The first boat to fill their hull and head back to Gloucester is considered the “winner” of the season, and Captain Disko is determined to maintain his winning reputation.  All of the men aboard, Harvey included, work frantically to fill the boat with fish.  When they do fill the boat, it appears that they will be the first to head back – until Disko learns that another boat snuck out minutes earlier.  Immediately, the We’re Here takes off, with Disko determined to chase down the other boat and beat it into harbor.  For several days the We’re Here follows right behind the other vessel, but finally manages to catch and pass it.  However, not long after, harsh winds crop up, and the captain orders two men into the rigging to furl one of the sails.  One of these men is Manuel.  As he is in the process of furling the sail, the strain on the mast proves too great and it cracks.  The mast, rigging and Manuel fall into the ocean beside the boat, where several men begin a rescue effort.  However, Manuel tells another crew member that he is hopelessly injured, with no chance of survival:  he does not want to be pulled out of the water, because he does not want Harvey to see his condition.  He tells the captain to instead cut the rigging free, which he knows will cause him to be dragged under to his death.  The captain is reluctant to do this, but honors Manuel’s wishes as Harvey sobs in a boat next to Manuel.  The race forgotten, the boat returns to Gloucester, where Harvey’s father is waiting.  However, Harvey wants to stay on the boat and become a fisherman like Manuel.  At a funeral for Manuel, Harvey finally bonds with his father; rather than return home by airplane, the two take Manuel’s fishing dory and drive home.

MY TAKE:  I think some part of everybody thinks it would be a great adventure to be a sailor, whether or not you would actually be able to do it (I, for one, have a fear of dying in the ocean, but I can still appreciate the adventure aspect).  Again, it’s a little like The Swiss Family Robinson – while you probably wouldn’t really like to live like them, part of you thinks it looks like fun.  This movie is one of those things that make you think that way.  At the start, Harvey is a complete (though admirably clever) brat who totally deserves to get punched in the nose by his classmate.  It’s this attitude that leads to him falling overboard, where he is picked up by a group of men who don’t care who is father is or how much money he has – in fact, they think Harvey’s lying.  Forced to stay with these men for three months, Harvey is forced to adapt to his situation.  If he wants to eat and be accepted by the others, he has to work.  A further lesson comes on the first day Manuel takes him out fishing in the dory:  after hearing Manuel make a bet with another fisher about who would catch the most, Harvey purposely fouled the man’s lines so that he would get caught up and slowed down.  When he proudly reveals this trick to Manuel, Manuel abruptly throws back the huge fish Harvey just caught, saying that he doesn’t want any fish that have been caught dishonestly.  He then takes Harvey back to the main boat.  As the weeks pass, Harvey’s lying and deceitfulness are overcome by hard work and Manuel’s teaching and examples, until Harvey is the type of boy his father wants him to be.  However, Harvey doesn’t want his father – he wants Manuel.  I almost never cry at movies, but in the scene where Harvey is pleading with Manuel to free himself from the rigging, I felt myself tearing up.  I actually saw this coming, as I realized that something would have to give – Harvey couldn’t be that attached to Manuel and still return to his father.  When the storm popped up and Manuel goes into the rigging, I knew what was coming.  The emotion and desperation from Harvey seems incredibly real, as though he really is distraught at the thought of losing Manuel.  Initially, this puts another barrier between him and his father, but with some persistence, Frank Cheyne wins back the affection of his son, so it’s a happy, if slightly bittersweet, ending.

RATING:  Really, really good.


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