Wednesday, July 1, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Captains Courageous'

Notes from another gathering of the local cinephile society….

This movie, made by MGM in 1937, was directed by Victor Fleming, who several years earlier, at the same studio, directed “Treasure Island,” a film that’s kind of a legend in my family.

Its legendary status has nothing to do with the film’s quality. It has everything to do with my Uncle Bob.

Unk, a Roman Catholic priest, visited us often, usually staying over for one or two days. During one of these visits, my grandmother, upon noticing that Unk had left some socks on the floor near his bed, remarked that her only son had done some nice girl a favor by becoming a priest.

My uncle watched a lot of TV, and sometimes one of us kids would come into the room and say, “Whatcha watchin’, Uncle Bob?”

Unk, just to get us out of his receding hair, would invariably say that he was watching “Treasure Island.” It didn’t matter that at various times Treasure Island seemed to be populated by Fred Astaire, Edward G. Robinson and Audie Murphy.

Once one of us asked what he was watching, and darned if it wasn’t “Treasure Island.”

Which we kids thought was hilarious.

My uncle, who usually had a terrific sense of humor, was not nearly as amused.


According to The Internet Movie Database, “Captains Courageous” was remade in 1977 and 1996, both times for TV.

After seeing the 1937 version of Rudyard Kipling’s book, you might wonder why – MGM got it right the first time.

This is the story about the snotty rich kid (played by Freddie Bartholomew) who falls off a luxury ship and is rescued by the crew of a fishing vessel, where a Portuguese fisherman (played by Spencer Tracy in an Oscar-winning performance) teaches him how to be a grown-up.

Tracy’s performance as Manuel is pretty much the high point, and he particularly deserved the Oscar when you consider what he was up against: Not only did he have to share the screen with a kid, but he had to put on both an accent and a wig that caused Joan Crawford to remark that he looked like Harpo Marx.

Tracy is reported to have said, on at least one occasion, “Don’t let them catch you acting.” Maybe a sharper eye would have caught him doing that in “Captains Courageous,” but I couldn’t spot any acting, though near the end there is a clumsy insert of Manuel beaming as he realizes the kid is going to turn out all right after all. (Seems like the kind of insert that would have been ordered after one of the studio’s famed sneak previews.)

Tracy’s performance, with accent, wig and all, is a high-wire act: One false move, and he would have fallen onto the sawdust of caricature. But he never slips.

A strong ensemble cast also helps: Lionel Barrymore, as the skipper; Mickey Rooney, before his appetite for scenery got the best of him, as Barrymore’s son; and Charley Grapewin and John Carradine as other crew members. On shore, Melvyn Douglas gives the right amount of shading to the role of the brat’s daddy.

A couple of things, though: Barrymore’s character is named Disko Troop (?! Rudyard, what were you thinking?) and the name of his vessel is We’re Here. Had he lived longer, Kipling could have made a nice living writing for Abbott and Costello – “Abbott, what’s the name of our boat?” “We’re Here!” “I KNOW we’re here, but what’s the name of the boat?”

Never mind what the first mate’s name is….

1 comment:

Julie Hyzy said...

I *love* Captain's Courageous. It's probably one of my ten favorite films of all time. The first time I saw it was on our (relatively) new VCR and I developed a huge crush on Spencer Tracy. He, of course, was long gone by that time. My kids have seen CC, too, enough that they understand when I break out into "Yey ho, leetle feesh, don't cry, don't cry.."
Hmm... it may be time to rewatch.