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Inform the rich brats of the world. At some point they're going to meet real salt of the earth folk who'll teach them the true meaning of life, or at least you might think so from the dozens and dozens of movies built around that theme. Perhaps the best is the 1937 Captains Courageous, based on Rudyard Kipling's novel, which earned Spencer Tracy his first Best Actor Oscar.
The story couldn't be more simple: Freddie Bartholomew is a spoiled tycoon's son who always gets his way through buying, whining or simple lying. On a trip to Europe he falls off the luxury ship only to awaken aboard the boat of a Portuguese fisherman (Spencer Tracy) and his small crew. Naturally Bartholomew immediately starts giving orders only to learn that he's not the boss here and in fact will have to wait until the fishermen finish their haul in another two or three months. Faced with such unyielding circumstances Bartholomew has little choice but to find out more about Tracy and his life.
Spencer Tracy had misgivings about playing the fisherman. He was first approached while filming Libeled Lady (1936) and felt that the fisherman was too secondary to the boy's part to be of real interest. It took director Victor Fleming (Red Dust, 1932) and Tracy's wife to convince him to take the role. Tracy still had reservations about getting his hair curled (at the studio, Joan Crawford kidded him for looking like Harpo Marx) and having to sing. He was also uncertain about how to do the Portuguese accent before deciding to base it on a Yiddish accent from his old theatre days. Even after finishing Captains Courageous Tracy thought it was some of his "worst" work, at least until he began receiving critical praise and eventually an Oscar. (It also took his life in an unexpected direction: After seeing Captains Courageous Katharine Hepburn decided that she had to work with Tracy and started looking for an appropriate project. The two would later become one of Hollywood's most famous screen teams.)
Much of Captains Courageous was filmed in winter off the coast of California during a period when location shooting was uncommon. Hundreds of live fish were brought down from Alaska and many more frozen ones flown in from Boston. A real fishing boat was used, along with some other boats for background and authenticity. Tracy kept trying to take the helm of the boat when not filming, something that did not amuse the real captain who once had Tracy forcibly removed when a storm unexpectedly arose. Mickey Rooney (who appears in a supporting role) and Freddie Bartholomew spent a good part of each day being tutored in part of the boat that had been converted into a classroom.
Producer: Louis D. Lighton
Director: Victor Fleming
Screenplay: Marc Connelly, John Lee Mahin, Dale Van Every (based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling)
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, A. Arnold Gillespie
Film Editing: Elmo Veron
Original Music: Franz Waxman, Clifford Vaughan
Principal Cast: Spencer Tracy (Manuel), Freddie Bartholomew (Harvey Cheyne), Lionel Barrymore (Captain Troop), Mickey Rooney (Dan Troop), Melvyn Douglas (Mr. Cheyne), Charley Grapewin (Uncle Salters), John Carradine (Long Jack), Leo G. Carroll (Burns)
BW-117m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Lang Thompson