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Captains Courageous (1937)


Greatest Films (www.filmsite.org and www.greatestfilms.org)
With descriptive review commentaries and background history on many classic, landmark films in cinematic history, especially American/Hollywood films. Including posters, Academy Awards history, film genres, film terms, film history by decade, trivia, and lots of lists of 'best' films, stars, scenes, quotes, resources, etc.


One of cinema's greatest classic adventure stories is director Victor Fleming's Captains Courageous (1937). It is an adaptation of English novelist Rudyard Kipling's 1897 work of the same name, and advertised: "As Great as Mutiny on the Bounty" with exciting action sequences, and a heart-felt story of the emerging relationship between an over-privileged and bratty young boy and a humble, common fisherman.

The classic MGM, coming-of-age children's film acquired four Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Film Editing - Elmo Veron, and Best Screenplay - Marc Connolly, John Lee Mahin, Dale Van Every) with Spencer Tracy taking home his very first Best Actor Oscar (he experienced back-to-back wins when he also won Best Actor the following year for Boys Town (1938)) for his heart-warming performance.

A spoiled, rich 12-year old boy, Harvey Cheyne (first-billed child actor Freddie Bartholomew), the only child of a widowed millionaire business tycoon, leans too far over the rail of a luxury ocean liner (the Queen Anne) to Europe with his father Mr. Cheyne (Melvyn Douglas), while vomiting after consuming six ice cream sodas. He falls into the ocean - unbeknownst to anyone. He is rescued by a crusty, but likeable and kindly Portuguese fisherman with curly-locked hair named Manuel (Spencer Tracy), who works as a doryman on a Gloucester, Massachusetts fishing vessel off the Grand Banks [in the North Atlantic Ocean S/SE of Newfoundland]:

Fifteen years I've been fisherman. First time I ever catch a fish like you.

He brings the water-drenched boy back to his fishing boat on his skiff. Manuel tells his shipmates: "I bring you new kind of feesh...He got no tail. He got pads on his dorsal fins."

After Harvey wakes up aboard the schooner named We're Here, he arrogantly tells Captain Disko Troop (Lionel Barrymore) to take him to shore, but is told that he cannot be brought back to land until they have filled the boat with fish - in about three months time. The captain's obliging son, Dan (Mickey Rooney) attempts to be friendly, and lends the boy clothes, but is put off by the bratty, obnoxious kid who complains: "These are the worst clothes I ever saw. This stuff itches."

At first, Harvey stubbornly refuses to help do any of the work, and threatens the crew with jail-time as kidnappers. He is told he must work as part of the crew in order to eat. Because Manuel rescued him, Manuel is given the duty of looking after his "leetle fish," and though he is reluctant and at first calls his catch "bad luck," Manuel takes a paternalistic interest in the boy and wins his confidence. Manuel tells stories and sings sea chanties, accompanied by a hurdy-gurdy (an old Portuguese instrument). He enjoys his singing, feeling good inside:

Say, sometimes a song so big and sweet inside, I...I just can't get him out, and then I look up at stars, and maybe cry, it feels so good.

Gradually, Harvey takes to working in the galley, moves up to deck duty and stands watch. Manuel begins to teach Harvey about life and the ways of the sea - how to cut fish and other fishing techniques, human values and honesty. One day, he begs to go out on a fishing trip with Manuel and is taken along. Manuel gives him fishing advice: "That fish, he have meeting down below. He tell other fish there something not so funny going on." Manuel's young helper catches a big halibut:

My leetle feesh catch feesh beeger than he is... Manuel and hees leetle feesh, they beat everybody. We make fisherman out of you, huh lettle feesh?

But Manuel teaches him a lesson and puts the halibut back in the sea, when he learns that his "lettle feesh" has cheated (fouled the troll line of other fishermen) in order to win. Harvey earns Manuel's respect when he admits to his deed and feels ashamed. He takes his place as Manuel's dory mate apprentice during fishing excursions. In a tribute to Manuel's care and support of his "lettle feesh," and realizing that he will soon be returned to his real father, Harvey tearfully asks: "I want to be with you Manuel, please."

In the climactic race back to Gloucester port against a rival schooner, the Jennie Cushman, Manuel volunteers to climb to the top of the mast to furl the sail, but tragically is mortally injured when the mast cracks and he is plunged into the water, caught in the tangled rope and the topsail canvas. Just before he is cut loose of the ropes to sink below the surface to his death, he delivers a memorable, sentimental, and tearful goodbye to Harvey:

Now listen to me, leetle feesh. I go now...We had good times together, eh, leetle feesh? We laugh. We sing. So you smile...Manuel - he be watching you. You be best fisherman ever lived.

Reunited with his father, Harvey is distraught over the loss of his fishing friend, although he has considerably matured as a young man following his experiences with Manuel. During a memorial service for Gloucester men who have perished in the sea, a large wreath is placed on the large memorial pedestal reading: "THEY THAT GO DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS - 1623-1923". After a short remembrance sermon, family members throw a wreath or bouquets of flowers into the water when their deceased sailor's name is called. Harvey throws a flowery wreath into the water when Manuel's name is called. His father, understanding his son's loss, throws a second wreath in the water that touches the first one - and they clasp hands. Harvey is reconciled with and comforted by his father as the two silently, arm in arm, watch the wreaths float away together in the outgoing tide.

The final short and wordless epilogue scene is of Harvey and his father in the back seat of a car that is towing Manuel's boat. Viewed from outside the car (but not audible), Harvey tells his father of his fishing exploits - boasting and gesturing with his arms and recalling the size of little and big fishes caught, while his father chuckles. A slow dissolve superimposes the ghostly image of a smiling and laughing Manuel over the car. Then, the large fishermen's memorial statue fades into view as the final static image. The words THE END appear.