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Shot largely on the Warner Bros. backlot in Hollywood, Captured! (1933) is a World War I thriller set in a German POW camp filled with British and American officers. British stage star Leslie Howard plays Captain Fred Allison, the superior officer among the prisoners and the cool-headed leader who devotes himself to sustaining the spirits of his men in a dehumanizing situation.
Leslie Howard had been a star of the stage for years but had steered clear of movies throughout the 1920s, the golden age of silent cinema. With the coming of sound, however, stage actors with strong, distinctive voices were in demand and in 1930 he was wooed by Hollywood to star in the screen version of the play Outward Bound. He had played the supporting role on stage in New York, but for the film he took the lead and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., the son of Hollywood royalty and a rising young actor in his own right, took the supporting role that Howard had created onstage. The film was a financial disappointment but a critical success and a mark of prestige for Warner. It was also the beginning of a "hilarious and adventurous friendship off screen," as Fairbanks describes it in his autobiography, between Howard, the very English stage professional newly arrived in the movies, and Fairbanks, the son of the Hollywood action superstar. They shared the same Hollywood agent, Mike Levee, and both landed lucrative contracts with Warner Bros.
Howard preferred stage to screen and didn't think much of the quality of scripts he was getting. Captured! was "just another in a long line that helped to pay for the English house, and this was a very important reason for anything," wrote his daughter, Leslie Ruth Howard, in A Quite Remarkable Father. It did, however, provide a reunion for the two friends. As Fairbanks shared in his autobiography, "one compensation for being maneuvered into a so-so story was being co-starred with Leslie Howard again.... Leslie was bound to raise the film's standards and I would have my work cut out just to keep up with him in my performance."
Fairbanks gets second billing as Capt. Allison's best friend Lieutenant Fred Digby, a flier who lands in the camp after Allison has negotiated better conditions for the men with the new camp Commandant (Paul Lukas), an Oxford man like Allison. The dynamic in some ways anticipates Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion (1937), with the two enemies finding common ground in class and education. Meanwhile the friendship between Allison and Digby is strained because of a Digby's determination to escape and because of a guilty secret he dare not share with Allison. "I failed to persuade Jack Warner that I preferred the American tough-guy parts that I had been getting away with," wrote Fairbanks in Salad Days. He was obliged to play a British character but next to the soft-spoken, cultured manner of Howard, he comes across as more of a can-do, emotionally-driven American.
Roy Del Ruth, a former gag man turned contract director in the silent era, flourished at Warner Bros. with the coming of sound and he became one of the most prolific and reliable directors in the studio stable in the 1930s, responsible for some of the snappiest and sassiest films of the pre-Code era, among them Blessed Event (1932), Employees' Entrance (1933), and the James Cagney films Blonde Crazy (1931), Taxi! (1932), and Lady Killer (1933). Captured! was largely shot on the Warner lot on a modest budget, making the camp more of a miniature suggestion of a sprawling location. Most of the action is contained in small spaces -- barracks, prison cells, offices -- and Del Ruth struggles to create tension and drama in a series of conversations without the energy of a James Cagney or a Lee Tracy to drive the dialogue.
To compensate, he set most of Captured! at night to create a shadowy, oppressive atmosphere. For reasons that work better dramatically than logically, the prison camp is situated next to a German airfield and the buzz of airplanes suggests the war outside the frame, torturing the men every night with the promise of escape just over the wire. Del Ruth saves his resources for the third act, which is filled with mob dynamics, brawling action, and a brutal machine-gun attack. For the finale, he went on location to a Glendale airfield and filled the screen with scores of biplanes and more than a thousand extras for a furious sequence shot at night. After the long build-up, Del Ruth lets loose and delivers a thrilling two-fisted finale.
Producer: Edward Chodorov
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Screenplay: Edward Chodorov (screenplay); Sir Philip Gibbs (story)
Cinematography: Barney McGill
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas
Music: Bernhard Kaun (uncredited)
Film Editing: William Holmes
Cast: Leslie Howard (Captain Fred Allison), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Lieutenant Fred 'Dig' Digby), Paul Lukas (Colonel Carl Ehrlich), Margaret Lindsay (Monica A. Allison), Robert Barrat (The Commandant), Arthur Hohl (Cocky), John Bleifer (Strogin), William LeMaire (Joe 'Tex' Martin), J. Carroll Naish (Cpl. Guarand), Phillip Faversham (Lieutenant Haversham).
by Sean Axmaker
The Salad Days, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. 1988, Doubleday.
A Quite Remarkable Father, Leslie Ruth Howard. 1959, Harcourt, Brace and Company.
In Search of My Father, Ronald Howard. 1981, St. Martin's Press.