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Captains Courageous and Two Great Performances


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I just watched most of Captains Courageous for the umpteenth time. While it is an occasionally spirited film dealing with fishermen and their vessels on the seas, I was struck, once again, by the film's emotional core which constantly pulls me to it, those scenes of remarkable intimacy between Spencer Tracy and Freddie Bartholomew.

 

The two actors have a sublime rapport, assisted by the direction of Victor Fleming. Tracy won an Oscar, of course, for his touching, humane portrayal which mixes wisdom with humour and courage, as Manuel, a simple Portuguese fisherman who teaches a young boy about life and helps that formerly spoiled young man mature. Bartholomew, in the role of the rich man's son, gives what has to be the performance of his career.

 

I'm always particularly touched by the scene towards the film's end in which Bartholomew tries, in his own way, to tell the fisherman of his love for him. And it really is a moment of love between these two. Tracy is talking to the boy about the fact that the boy's father will be anxiously looking for him and they will need to be reunited. Bartholmew acknowledges that statement, but starts to ramble. He keeps his head down, looking at the floor as he tries to tell Tracy how he feels.

 

Bartholomew then looks up at Tracy, for the first time showing him his face, and there are tears in his eyes.

 

"I want to stay with you, Manuel," he says, finally uttering the words that are in his heart .

 

"Pleeese," he pleads, as he bites his lip.

 

It's one of the most heart wrenching moments ever captured on film. A little boy, formerly self absorbed and proud, dropping all pretense of pride as he emotionally opens up to a man he loves and respects, and can't bear to leave.

 

Tracy, stunned, deeply moved, can only say, "My leetle feesh," as he places his hand on the boy's face. His look and that gentle simple gesture beautifully expresses his feelings at the moment, too.

 

It's a scene that never fails to move me, to the extent that I can never recall the film's following sequence because I'm too busy wiping tears from my eyes.

 

Later in the film, after the fisherman, the boy's friend and hero, has drowned, Bartholomew, in that scene in which he cries in Manuel's boat, as his father tries to comfort him, captures the anguish and despair that we all feel when we have lost someone very special in our lives, and know we will never see that person again. Victor Fleming touchingly directs a moment which, to me, captures the agony of a young boy dealing with the terrible permanence of death.

 

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"Leetle feesh."

 

 

 

 

The interplay between these two actors in this film is sublime.

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I watched it for the first time tonight and loved it. One thing, though. I love Spencer Tracy as much as the next person, but that accent was distracting. I love accents on film and don't need subtitles but he sounded like he had speech lessons by Chico Marx. But that's just me.

 

Fine movie. But not enough Melvyn Douglas, but I get that the script called for him to be off camera..

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Tom, I agree completely with what you wrote. Captains Courageous is a wonderful film with beautiful performances by Tracy and Bartholomew. I have seen the film probably over 15 times and I cry at the same place in the film you mentioned every time.

 

The film does such a wonderful job in allowing us to see the "growth" of Bartholomew's character. This growth is all due to the love and understanding a "simple" but wise man gives to this child.

 

This film always confirms to me that sometimes in life things might happen that at first we might fight and not understand why this is happening. However, once time has passed, we then can finally see that what we fought and couldn't understand why it was happening turned out to be a real blessing for us, and we are grateful that it did happen the way it did.

 

I hope I made sense. Anyway, it is a great film that has stood the test of time, and I believe is an Essential for adults and children a like.

 

Thanks for another beautiful write up.

 

Lori

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Well stated, Lori. The film's final scene, in which we see a happy Bartholomew in the back of the car telling a tale that has his father laughing, clearly indicates that the boy has gotten through his mourning period and is growing as a person, thanks to the experience of knowing Manuel. The superimposition of a smiling Spencer Tracy over the screen says, to me, that Manuel's great spirit and the life lessons he taught will always be with the boy.

 

Curious, isn't it, how certain films come on and and you know there's a scene coming up in it (because you've seen the film before) that will tear you up, yet you just have to watch it again. That beautiful scene I mentioned between Tracy and Bartholomew in this film is one of them. The endings of The Bicycle Thief and City Lights get to me every time, as well as a couple of scenes in Awakenings, with Robert DeNiro.

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Spencer Tracy's Academy Award win for Captains Courageous came in 1937, a highly competitive year for male stars, in my opinion. Also nominated were Paul Muni, truly at the peak of his career in status and acclaim, having just received the Oscar the previous year, this time up for his performance in The Life of Emile Zola; Charles Boyer, as Napoleon, giving a performance that many said took the shine from co-star Garbo's, in Conquest; Robert Montgomery, playing against type as a charming psychopath, in Night Must Fall; and Frederic March, at the peak of his charm as Norman Maine in the first screen adaption of A Star Is Born.

 

Not nominated that same year, but certainly Oscar worthy in my opinion: Ronald Colman as Conway, the disillusioned world diplomat who finds Shangri-La in Frank Capra's Lost Horizon. Colman's performance is worthy, to me, if only for one scene, that in which he has been reluctantly talked into leaving the paradise by his brother. It's that closeup of his face depicting his conflict in emotions as he looks back on Shangri-La once last time before he heads out into the mountain trail, that always gets to me.

 

A lot of really great work by these actors (though, for me, Muni's is a bit too theatrical and hammy for my palate). My own Oscar would still go to Tracy. I think they picked the most deserving actor. (This does not apply to Tracy's second Oscar win the following year for Boys' Town, but that, as they say, is another story).

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Love that Caradine/Bartholomew scene too, Sepia. In fact, last night while watching this film for the umpteeth time again, and when as the crew of the ship are going their separate ways after docking, I remember I especially looked forward to seeing that final interaction of theirs.

 

I think we all have been in a situation where we're a "newcomer" and there's always at least one Oldtimer "Hard Case" who at first seems to hate your guts, but over time once you prove your worth seems to soften up ever so slightly towards ya and you begin to sense a measure of respect coming from them...though they're loathe to admit it, of course.

 

(...aah, but enough about FredCDobbs...OOPS!...I mean Long Jack here, eh?!) ;)

 

LOL

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>Kudos aside, Everyone in the cast did a fine job, from Tracy and Bartholomew to Rooney(though seldom seen)and Barrymore and even Carradine and Grapewin.

 

I agree. This is really a great classic movie. :)

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*Dargo wrote: I think we all have been in a situation where we're a "newcomer" and there's always at least one Oldtimer "Hard Case" who at first seems to hate your guts*

 

My own experience was with the foreman of a maintenance department who always reminded me of Manuel. He had very little formal education and really had to grapple with his English (he was German and once told me his German wasn't much better than his English). But Hubert was intelligent, had great common sense and wonderful people skills. He was actually able to walk that thin tightrope of being a boss who was also a friend, but at the same time making sure that the building was run well and crack down on his men, if necessary.

 

He had been promoted from worker to foreman but had so many conflicts with management, as he tried to stick up for his men, that he was finally pressured into taking an early retirement package. Fortunately, because of his people skills, HR gave him a good retirement package. Afterward, as he enjoyed his retirement, he used to say, "Good thing I got a big mouth." But the department was never run as well again, as, typically, mangement got a new foreman who was a complete toady. Yeah, Hubert reminded me of Manuel a lot.

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Hi Tom . . .

 

 

YES ! . . . 'Captain Courageous' has Always been One of my Favorite Classic Films . . . and I've passed the Love of this Great Movie onto my Sons and they've passed it onto their own Sons . . .

 

 

All those 'Heart Ripping' scene that you all have mentioned have affected me just as profoundly . . . But one scene that 'grips' me just as hard, is when 'Harvey' is trying to hold onto Manuel when he's struggling in the Water . . . Making hurried 'unyielding' attempts to 'reason' with both Manuel and Captain Disko, not to 'cut' the lines ... But after his 'futile' attempts fail, he's left with Manuel's final parting words, " ... I go now & fish with my Father ... You be a Good Leetle Feesh' ... Manuel, he be watching you . . . you be the best Feesherman ever . . ." And after Manuel goes under, with Harvey almost following ... he's left starring @ the very spot where his friend has gone forever ... and when he places his head on his arm, his 'Gut Wrenching' sobs really tear @ my heart . . . (even now, I've had to wipe my eyes a few times remembering that scene .... )

 

 

And it's @ this moment when I see Long Jack showing a tenderness of heart towards Harvey, comforting him with a couple of taps on Harvey's shoulder with his gloved hand, but those comforting 'taps' spoke deep volumes.

 

 

And the 'HighLight' of the Movie for me was when Harvey finally turns from a 'Rich BRAT' into a 'Mature Person' . . . after confronting LongJack about his entangled lines and telling Manuel how 'Ashamed' he is of himself . . . All the 'Comaraderie' spills over, showing Harvey fishing with them, singing with them, getting fish hooks stuck in his own arm and EATING & Drinking along with them too . . . Harvey was Finally One of Them . . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I had always 'toyed' with the thought of what Harvey Cheyne's life would have been like after he went back home with his Father . . . HOW the School, his Teachers and Friends would have Re-acted to his 'Change' . . .

 

 

And if he would have ever Visited Captain Disko, Dan, LongJack . . . and the Rest of the Crew !

 

 

. . . Possibly purchasing a 'Fleet of Dories' for the Needier Fishermen and their families. happy.gif

 

 

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Captains Courageous is a film that has struck such a chord with so many people over the years. Somewhere I read or heard that Katharine Hepburn called this her favourite Tracy performance. And it was such different casting for Tracy.

 

Amazingly, considering his success in this film, I can't think of any other film in which Tracy attempted a dialect again. Maybe he thought it best to quit while he was ahead. It's been years since seeing The Old Man and the Sea, the closest I suppose he came to playing another Manuel. I can't remember if he made an attempt at an accent, or not. Certainly, though, that film didn't make the same impression upon me as did this literary adaption.

 

Oh, wait, I just remembered another Tracy dialect performance: Tortilla Flat. Oh, well, you can't win them all.

 

As has already been stated on this thread a number of the other performances in this film, aside from that of its two stars, are also highly commendable. This was one of Lionel Barrymore's last performances before arthritis would confine him to a wheelchair, and he gives a fine account of himself as the skipper of the fishing boat. John Carradine, of course, is also memerable as Long Jack, the hardened veteran.

 

I also wanted to pay tribute to the often neglected directorial contributions of Victor Fleming. He was known, of course, as a man's man, supposedly the prototype for Gable's screen image (he was also that actor's favourite director). Aside from his Gable films, he also directed The Virginian, which made a star of Gary Cooper. Cooper always remained grateful to Fleming for that reason, though the two never worked together again.

 

Fleming has the distinction of having directed nine Oscar-nominated performances. Among his many MGM '30s films of distinction: Red Dust, Bombshell, Treasure Island and Test Pilot. Finally, he was also given primary directorial credit for two of the most celebrated films of all time, Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.

 

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Victor Fleming directing Tracy during Captains Courageous

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