The genesis of Captains Courageous
came from famed British author Rudyard Kipling's 1897 novel of the same name. The story about a spoiled rich boy who finds redemption aboard a Gloucester fishing schooner was Kipling's only American novel, and MGM had been mulling over the idea of turning it into a major motion picture for several years. In 1934 MGM Production Head Irving Thalberg purchased the screen rights to the book for $25,000 and assigned producer Louis D. Lighton to put the project together. Victor Fleming, with whom Lighton had collaborated on the 1929 western The Virginian
, was chosen to direct.
A total of three writers worked on adapting Kipling's book into a screenplay: John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly, and Dale Van Every. The adaptation took a few liberties with the story and characters, including elevating the book's minor character of Manuel, the simple Portuguese fisherman, to a key player in the film. The writers also shaved a few years off of the character of Harvey, taking him from fifteen-years-old to twelve in order to accommodate MGM's choice actor for the role, Freddie Bartholomew.
Bartholomew was one of MGM's top child actors of the 1930s. Plucked from obscurity in Great Britain to star in MGM's big budget adaptation of David Copperfield
in 1935, Bartholomew's remarkable talent and natural instincts as an actor made him an instant star. Following successful featured roles in Anna Karenina
(1935) with Greta Garbo and Little Lord Fauntleroy
(1936), Bartholomew was given top billing in Captains Courageous
Most of the supporting cast for the film was chosen early in the pre-production process including Melvyn Douglas (borrowed from Columbia) as Harvey's wealthy father and Lionel Barrymore as the crusty Captain of the We're Here
, Disko Troop. Bartholomew's contemporary, Mickey Rooney, was cast in a small role as Captain Troop's son Dan.
The most important casting choice would be for Manuel, the rugged but lovable Portuguese fisherman whose character is the heart of the film's story. Irving Thalberg wanted a less than obvious choice for the part: Spencer Tracy. The actor had come to MGM in 1935 at the end of a stint with Twentieth Century Fox, where stardom had eluded him. At MGM, Thalberg had known how to properly use the versatile actor, and Tracy quickly earned fame at his new studio in films such as Fury
and San Francisco
As much faith as Tracy had in Thalberg's judgment, however, he initially resisted taking the assignment. Not only had he never worked with director Victor Fleming before, he also felt that playing Manuel might be too big of a stretch. "Fought against it like a steer," Tracy later said according to James Curtis' 2011 biography Spencer Tracy
. "Thought the characterization would be phony. Didn't see how the pieces would fit together. Didn't know where I could borrow an accent." Tracy was uncomfortable affecting any accent, and he warned Fleming and Lighton that his Portuguese accent would probably be all over the place and less than authentic. Fleming and Lighton in turn assured him that a character like Manuel had spent years living among Gloucester seamen and would likely have picked up all sorts of language influences in his accent.
Additionally, Tracy was uncomfortable with the level of spiritual symbolism in Manuel. "I've always played rough-and-tumble parts," he said. "This story's religion or something. Those scenes where he talks about his father--suppose I don't bring 'em off? They'll be horrible--sitting there in the boat, talking about Fisherman's Heaven, a guy thirty-seven years old -- you'll have your audience reaching for bigger and wider hats."
Eventually, however, Tracy acquiesced and began preparing for the role. "I went to see every picture in town where an actor might be found speaking in an accent--saw Eddie Robinson, [Paul] Muni [in Black Fury
, 1935], others," he said. "Then we scoured San Diego trying to find a Portuguese sailor to use as a model for Manuel. Finally we found our man. The chap came to the studio to see me. He was
Manuel. The expression in his eyes, the way he walked, the way he sat, the way he used his hands, his knowledge of boats. Then he began to talk, and...he spoke better English than I do. When I asked him what he thought about my calling the kid my 'leetle feesh,' he looked at me patiently--and a little pityingly--and said, 'Do you mean little fish
, Mr. Tracy?' I gave up."
In early September 1936, MGM spent three days shooting test footage for Captains Courageous
, including makeup for Tracy. The makeup people experimented with darkening his skin and curling his hair--something Tracy hated. "One day, just after I'd had my hair curled," said Tracy, "I walked down the stairs at Metro and heard a scream. I looked up, and Joan Crawford said, 'My God, Harpo Marx!'"
There were many times when the insecure Tracy considered pulling out of the film. However, his friends and colleagues would convince him to stay and throw himself into the role. "I finally talked myself into practicing dialect and putting up with having my hair curled twice a day," said Tracy, "but the thought of singing gave me the shudders. I dodged the voice teacher, Arthur Rosenstein, for weeks. After I started taking lessons, I used to duck practice as much as I could. Then I just said, 'Oh, what's the difference?' and let the old baritone rip." Tracy also took musical lessons so that he could properly handle a hurdy-gurdy, which Manuel plays in the film.
Just as Captains Courageous
was set to begin principal shooting, however, the entire MGM family was dealt a painful blow on the morning of September 14, 1936: Production Chief Irving Thalberg died suddenly at the premature age of 36. Thalberg had been a much beloved figure at the studio, and Tracy knew that it was Thalberg's guidance of his career that had helped make him a star at MGM. After a brief period of mourning that initially delayed the production schedule on Captains Courageous
, shooting was ready to commence. Tracy wanted to honor Thalberg in his performance as Manuel out of respect for all he had done for him and the faith Thalberg had always shown in his talent.
by Andrea Passafiume