According to The Book “Captains Courageous” is a children’s movie. I am not sure I agree with that. If I was a young boy I would probably be traumatized and very frightened from this movie. This is not easy stuff, but maybe children of the thirties were made of different material and not so squeamish about people dying and hard work on a boat on the North Atlantic.
As an adult film about children however this is an excellent film. It is gripping and heartbreaking and very well made.
Fundamentally this is a rite of passage story. The boy Harvey (Freddie Bartholomew) starts out as a spoiled brat with a single, but very wealthy, father who instead being a father for his son assumes that he can buy an upbringing. Without a father figure, but with all the power money can buy Harvey has become a real pain in the ass. He is selfish, manipulative, narcissistic and vengeful. Just about as bad as a child can get.
The turnaround comes when Harvey fall overboard from the cruise ship he was riding with his father and is picked up by a fisherman called Manuel (Spencer Tracy ). Manuel is part of Captain Disko Troop’s ( Lionel Barrymore) crew on the schooner “We’re Here” and this is a very different world from the one Harvey is used to. On the schooner Harvey’s money (that he claims he has) is worth nothing and he cannot manipulate, cheat or bully anybody around. Instead he learns that these hard men have an integrity Harvey never had but is longing for and Manuel becomes the father figure Harvey was lacking. Harvey wants to be like them, he wants Manuel to be proud of him and to do so he must become a man of integrity as well.
I am not a fan of child actors in old films. They are usually really really annoying. If you do not know what I talk about go see “Babes in Arms”. In the opening sequences “Captains Courageous” looks like another film ruined by the poor acting of the child, but actually that is just Harvey being immensely full of himself and trying to prove to just about everybody how big and important he is. In fact Freddie Bartholomew is one of the better child actors I have encountered and the proof is the turn-around he accomplishes. Freddie Bartholomew manages both to be a certified pain and an endearing young man of integrity.
But this is also very much Spencer Tracy’s film. In an age where some make-up and a fake accent was enough to proclaim an actor foreign Spencer Tracy is quite convincing as the Portuguese fisherman Manuel. He is a hardened fisher and a brawler but also a poet and fundamentally a good man with tons of integrity. It is difficult not to love him and when he falls down with the mast my heart reach out for him as if I was Harvey. Spencer Tracy won an Oscar as Best Actor for the effort and it was fully deserved.
Another lead would be the boat itself and the filming of it. Those pictures are just magnificent! Tall ships make the heart leap and seeing the schooner breaking through the waves and leaning over is such a beautiful sight. It makes a landlubber like me want to become a sailor as well. When I was a child I had a friend whose father was a ships carpenter with specialty in wooden ships. I spent many hours of my childhood playing on the wharf and workshop smelling the tar and wood. Though I never became a sailor I still love those boats.
If there is one unnecessary element to the film (though important to the story) it is the pointless race for port. The rivalry of Captain Troop with Captain Cushman I suppose lends flavor to the story, but the sea is dangerous enough without risking the lives of seamen in pointless races. There, I said it. It angered me because I genuinely liked Lionel Barrymore’s Captain Disko Troop.
On the ship we also find a very young Mickey Rooney as Captain Troop’s son. It is a small part and mainly serves as an example of how life could be with a father around that you worked with and for and could idolize.
A very difficult moment of the film is the end when Harvey and his father are reunited. How do you reconnect in that situation? Harvey is changed and his father wants to make up for lost time. This is not easy and I am not sure how I would do it. The dilemma of any father is how to be a good father for your son. He tries to understand, he really tries, but on some level he has already lost. In Harvey’s heart Manuel is now his real father figure.