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The opening title reads, "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer presents Victor Fleming's Production of Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous." Reviews pointed out the fact that the character of "Harvey" was nineteen in Kipling's novel, but was changed to twelve in order to accommodate Freddie Bartholomew. According to pre-production news items in Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter, backgrounds and exteriors for the film were shot on location in Port aux Basques, Newfoundland and Shelburne, Nova Scotia in Canada, and Gloucester, MA in October and November 1935. Principal photography was set to begin on 14 Sep, then September 19, 1936, but, due to the death of M-G-M production chief Irving Thalberg on 13 Sep, the production was delayed for several days. Additional location shooting was done by second unit crews in the Florida Keys and off the coast of Mazatlan, Mexico, where the storm scenes were filmed. In mid-January 1937, shooting was temporarily halted due to the slow recovery of director Victor Fleming after minor surgery. Jack Conway subsequently took over for Fleming until 1 Feb. Photographer Harold Rosson was briefly replaced by Harold Morzorati in early February 1937 while Rosson was ill with the flu.
Melvyn Douglas was borrowed from Columbia for the picture. The exterior of the building used for the Cheyne manion at the beginning of the film is located on Washington, Blvd. in Culver City. The structure, which initially housed the offices of the Thomas H. Ince Corp., became the headquarters of Selznick-International, and also served as its corporate logo. A Hollywood Reporter news item on the Los Angeles premiere noted that, for the first time in Hollywood history, pickets dressed in evening clothes manned a picket line. Although not specifically stated in that news item, the protest was linked to strikes within the industry that began in early May. According to various front page news items in Hollywood Reporter from 1 May to 14 May, a general, industry-wide strike was averted on 12 or 13 May, but some studios had not yet signed pertinent agreements. M-G-M apparently was one studio that had not yet signed. According to a news item in Motion Picture Daily on November 18, 1938, Federal Judge Harry Hollzer awarded a $30,000 judgement against M-G-M to Mrs. Helen Gonmesen, the widow of Kristen Gonmesen, a seaman who was swept overboard in the Pacific Ocean during shooting. The suit was based on the contention that the ship used was unsafe and unseaworthy.
Spencer Tracy won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance, the first of two back-to-back awards. The second was for Boys Town. Captains Courageous was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, and John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly and Dale Van Every were nominated for the Best Screenplay award. According to a news item in Hollywood Reporter, Mahin did not accept his Oscar nominaton certificate until 1939 because, at the time of his nomination, he had been on the board of the Writer's Guild and there was a dispute between the Guild and the Academy about possible discrimination in the writer's branch award committee. Film Daily, the National Board of Review, and New York Times all named the picture one of the ten best films of the year. A television movie adaptation of Kipling's novel was made in 1977, starring Jonathan Kahn, Ricardo Montalban and Karl Malden.