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"Women on a ship is bad luck," predicts a sailor in the opening scene of Captain Caution. "Always will be." The woman he's referring to is Corunna Dorman (Louise Platt), daughter of Captain Dorman (Robert Barrat) of the bark Olive Branch, an American freighter sailing the seas of 1812. He may have a point. After over 100 days at sea, they have no idea that they have gone to war with the British. When a British warship moves on them, Dan Marvin (Victor Mature), the ship's First Officer and fianc to Corunna, resists engaging in battle with a ship flying the British flag (an American ally, as far as any of them know in the opening scenes). With her father killed in the attack, Corunna takes charge as owner and captain and rouses the crew to take revenge on the British.
Produced in 1940 for Hal Roach Studios, Captain Caution was a budget-minded response to the success of Captain Blood (1935) and its 1940 follow-up The Sea Hawk. Roach had built his studio on silent comedies, starting with a series of shorts starring Harold Lloyd and growing to include Will Rogers, Charley Chase, Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts, the long-running "Our Gang" shorts, and the fortuitous (and extremely profitable pairing) of two longtime silent comics who became legendary as the team Laurel and Hardy.
With the coming of sound, he focused more on features than shorts and expanded his repertoire, adding low-budget adventures to his slate of comedies. Captain Caution, based on the Kenneth Roberts novel "Captain Caution, A Chronicle of Arundel," was the third of such projects. The film plays on the history of sailors and ships who aided the American Navy in the War of 1812 by serving as privateers, a mix of private contractor and pirate preying upon enemy ships with the blessing of the government. Like the earlier One Million B.C. (1940), the spectacle of sea battles were created with special effects, specifically detailed miniatures in a tank, while the sailor brawls and boarding raids play out on sets safely on dry land.
With no stars left in his stable by 1940, Roach groomed his own leading man. Captain Caution became a vehicle for young beefcake actor Victor Mature, who made his debut in the Roach comedy The Housekeeper's Daughter (1939) and was promoted to leading man in One Million B.C., the legendary caveman adventure featuring Mature as a prehistoric warrior in animal skins battling dinosaurs. Dan is branded with the "Captain Caution" nickname by a bitter Corunna, but caution aside, Mature was definitely cast for his beefy physique and he gets to brawl with the best of them as a two-fisted American patriot.
Broadway actress Louise Platt, who plays Corunna, was not a film star but made an impression as the proper, cultured southern lady on her way to meet her cavalry officer husband in John Ford's Stagecoach in 1939. Captain Caution was one of her last features before leaving Hollywood to return to the stage, but she came back to the screen in a number of television dramas in the 1950s, including "Dip in the Pool," an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by Hitchcock himself.
Filling out the cast is a roster of colorful character actors. The spirited Leo Carrillo, usually relegated to outsized Latino roles and Mexican characters (including Pancho in the fifties TV series The Cisco Kid), plays the French Canadian Lucien with a flamboyant accent and plenty of comic commentary. Former vaudeville comic El Brendel brings his smiling Swede schtick to the role of the ship's resident character and troubadour with his heavy dialect and broken English. Completing the rainbow coalition of international character types is J. Pat O'Malley, who made the jump from British music hall singer to recording artist to actor in a small bit as a fish peddler. It was the first of over two hundred movie, TV, and stage roles for the popular character actor, including memorable voices in such Disney features as Alice in Wonderland, Mary Poppins, and The Jungle Book.
Burly Bruce Cabot, who plays a war profiteer posing as a patriot, made his fame as the heroic first mate in King Kong (1933). And you can spot Alan Ladd in a small but memorable role as a desperate, wild-eyed prisoner who goes mad with revenge in the final act. In just a couple of years, Ladd would break out of bit parts and supporting roles with This Gun for Hire (1942) and become one of the biggest stars of the 1940s.
The film earned an Oscar® nomination for Best Sound.
Producer: Grover Jones, Hal Roach, Richard Wallace
Director: Richard Wallace
Screenplay: Grover Jones, Kenneth Roberts (novel)
Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Film Editing: James Newcomb
Art Direction: Charles D. Hall, Nicolai Remisoff
Music: Phil Ohman
Cast: Victor Mature (Daniel Marvin), Louise Platt (Corunna Dorman), Leo Carillo (Lucien Argandeau), Bruce Cabot (Lehrman Slade), Robert Barrat (Capt. Dorman), Vivienne Osborne (Victorine Argandeau).
by Sean Axmaker
"A Word of 'Captain Caution'," John A. Tures. "The War of 1912 Magazine," Issue 14, October 2010.