I’ve watched Captains Courageous numerous times, so this week I tried to put a new twist on the experience. I’d never read the 1896 Rudyard Kipling novel that the movie was based upon, but the price was right at the Internet Archive. If I had written about the movie at any time before reading the novel I would have spent most of my words glowing over Freddie Bartholomew’s performance. I still do a bit of that below. But having just put the book down I’m full of praise for Marc Connelly, John Lee Mahin, and Dale Van Every, the Academy Award nominated trio of screenwriters who completely remade Kipling’s very 19th Century book into a Golden Age Hollywood classic.
Kipling’s main crew remain very much the same, in character and in action, but the film drops some characters (Harvey’s mother), deemphasizes others (Disko’s son, Dan), and even fortifies one minor character to such a degree that it became an Academy Award winning leading role (Manuel). Harvey tumbles to the sea within Kipling’s first few pages, while the film spends more time introducing the boy to us and showing us what an obnoxious brat he is. The movie matches up best with the book when Harvey first meets Captain Disko Troop, which does come moments after he’s been rescued by Manuel, the Portuguese fisherman. But Manuel was just a spark of added color from Kipling, a minor character who has no major impact on the climax of his story. By novel’s end Mrs. Cheyne wishes the family had Manuel as their butler, an option that is impossible on every level in the movie. Finally, in terms of accessibility, Kipling’s heavy use of dialect among the sailors on board the We’re Here creates a bumpy reading experience that makes his text more classical than classic. The movie remedies that as well.
In January 1934 MGM acquired film rights to Captains Courageous and Kipling’s later novel Kim, which wasn’t made into a film until 1950. Freddie Bartholomew’s first Hollywood hit, David Copperfield, didn’t premiere until a year after MGM purchased the Kipling stories, but he was touted as the star of Captains Courageous by September 1935, shortly after his second appearance for the company in Anna Karenina. MGM crews filmed location shots in Gloucester, Massachusetts as early as October 1935, and continued seeking out storms and harbors up and down the east coast over the next several months. The screenwriting team worked their wonders throughout the period, sculpting much more than a supporting role out Manuel by the time Spencer Tracy was announced for the film in February 1936. Jack Conway was originally slated to direct, but Victor Fleming ultimately landed the assignment. Conway did wind up standing in for him during a few weeks in January 1937 when Fleming was ill.
Bartholomew’s Harvey spends the first portion of the film flexing his father’s muscles over his peers and even the faculty of the private school he attends in Connecticut. Melvyn Douglas plays Harvey Sr., a New York tycoon who is nonetheless a swell guy, just too busy with business to spend a lot of time with his son. Mr. Cheyne is shocked when he’s told of Harvey’s poor behavior and even a little amused when he discovers that the school has given his son the sack. “It seems that I’ve begotten a sort of junior Machiavelli,” he remarks.
Mr. Cheyne hopes a business excursion to Europe will provide some quality time for he and Harvey, but business continues to foil best intentions, even aboard the Queen Anne. Left on his own with run of the ship, Harvey uses his father’s name and the power behind it to force an ice cream stand to open and then, in an attempt to impress some boys who already dislike him, sucks down so many ice cream sodas that he stumbles off his stool out into the fresh sea air.
The other boys are anxious to point and laugh at Harvey being sick, so he scurries behind a lifeboat to hide from them and then slips into the sea below. Within moments a lone Portuguese fisherman spots him in the current and drags him onto his dory.
“I get fish with hair on him,” Manuel (Spencer Tracy) brags to his shipmates on board the fishing schooner We’re Here.
After Harvey comes around he tries to impress his importance upon the ship’s Captain, Disko Troop (Lionel Barrymore), but Captain Disko doesn’t believe a word Harvey says and tells him it wouldn’t matter if he did. Disko’s concern is his crew and their catch and explains to Harvey that no matter how important his father may be, too many livelihoods depend upon the importance of this voyage. Harvey insists that his father has more than enough money to make up any lost wages for everyone on board, but Disko is firm in his reply. He tells Harvey that he’s going to have to wait several weeks before they dock, not in New York, but in Gloucester. Harvey continues his protest until Disko lumbers towards him and cuffs him across the ear, sending the shocked boy to the ground.
Fish out of water may describe Captains Courageous better than any other story ever crafted. Harvey is a young man of means (and doesn't he know it!) stranded among working class fisherman based out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Bartholomew's arrogant youth is slowly disarmed by the man who found him, Tracy’s Manuel, who forms an attachment to his little fish from the moment he pulls him out of the sea. Harvey comes to understand humanity through Manuel and begins to disregard the inherited sense of power and status that formerly defined him.
While Captains Courageous features plenty of great action shots at sea, the most electric scenes of the film are the interactions between Tracy and his young co-star. Bartholomew’s character is more out of his element within the film, but it’s Tracy who had to extend himself to play Manuel. The actor dreaded many aspects of the role including his accent, his hair, and Manuel’s penchant for singing, which provides the first opportunity to show Harvey as something more than a terror. As Tracy’s biographer James Curtis wrote, “The challenge with Manuel was to put him across as a genuinely happy man without making him seem like an idiot” (306). When we first spot Tracy calling out at the Queen Anne he both looks and acts so unfamiliar that it’s hard to suppress laughter. Credit Tracy for quickly blending in with the other sailors on board the We’re Here to the point that he is Manuel, not Spencer Tracy, by the time of his first important interactions with Harvey.
Captains Courageous also presented 12-year-old Freddie Bartholomew with a very different role than he had been playing. The child star had already established himself as much more than a good weeper in films such as David Copperfield and Little Lord Fauntleroy, but in those literary classics and other films, it was often Freddie who inspired change in the adults around him. While Professional Soldier gave Freddie's character an opportunity at some male bonding, it was another film where Freddie caused change within the adult character, Victor McLaglen on that occasion. At the start of Captains Courageous Freddie Bartholomew's character is unlikable, a first for the young actor, and rather than transforming the adults around him it’s his Harvey who changes most in this film. He goes misty-eyed at a few points of Captains Courageous, as will his audience, but he’s best served here by a youthful curiosity that allows him to absorb the best of the strange scenes and people around him.
“The kid had to believe in Manuel, or Manuel wasn’t worth a quarter,” Tracy told Modern Screen in 1937. He added: “Freddie Bartholomew’s acting is so fine and so simple and so true that it’s way over people’s heads.”
In the 1992 MGM retrospective When the Lion Roars Bartholomew remarked upon the strange sense of competition he sensed from Tracy during production, but Tracy continued to be magnanimous in the wake of the film’s success. Upon receiving the Academy Award for Best Actor, the first of his two consecutive Oscars, Tracy said:
It was really Freddie Bartholomew who should have won that trophy … He can give lessons in acting to anybody in this town (Heffernan).
I wouldn’t disagree with Tracy, but neither would I look to snatch away his trophy. The magic of Captains Courageous isn’t due to either individual performance, but a special quality born of the smooth chemistry supplied by the acting tandem of Tracy and Bartholomew. It is their mutual performance—along with the screenwriters who carved out the opportunity—that makes Captains Courageous the rare screen adaptation that surpasses the source material of an acknowledged master.
My copy of Captains Courageous is the 2006 Warner Home Video DVD release. It was later released on DVD by Turner Classic Movies in 2012 as one of four films in the Greatest Classic Legends: Spencer Tracy collection. The other three titles in that set are Bad Day at Black Rock, Boys Town, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
- Curtis, James. Spencer Tracy: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 2011.
- Heffernan, Harold. “Spencer Tracy Grateful to Freddie Bartholomew.” Milwaukee Journal. March 25, 1938, p. 1.
- “M-G-M Men Ashore.” Motion Picture Daily. 4 February 1936, p. 8.
- “Tracy in Courageous.” Motion Picture Daily. 25 February 1936, p. 10.
- Wilk, Ralph. “A Little from Lots.” Film Daily. 19 January 1934, p. 8.
- Zeitlin, Ida. “Manuel, the Lovable.” Modern Screen. October 1937: 101.