Captains Courageous (1937): A Classic Movie Review

Captains Courageous (1937)

There are times when I think Spencer Tracy would have been better off if he’d never been paired up with Katharine Hepburn in 1942, when they co-starred in Woman of the Year. Now I know there are many fans of this duo, which made nine films together. I, myself, enjoy many of their films. Yet, the problem I have with this pairing is that there are so many movie fans who don’t recognize (or know about) the great work Tracy did without Hepburn way too many, his career is overly defined by the work he did with her. This is a shame, because he gave some of his best performances without her. As a matter of fact, in his illustrious career he was nominated for nine Academy Awards (winning twice), and only one of these nominations, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, co-starred Hepburn. Perhaps this oversight is tied to their off-screen romance. Whatever the case, I wish more people appreciated his non-Hepburn films.

Captains Courageous is one of those non-Hepburn films in which Tracy gives an outstanding performance. He won his first Oscar playing Portuguese fisherman Manuel in this classic 1937 MGM film, directed by Victor Fleming. An adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s novel of the same name, the film garnered four Academy Award nominations (only winning Best Actor) and is considered one of cinema’s classic coming-of-age adventure stories.

In the beginning of the film, spoiled rich boy Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew) and his widowed, inattentive millionaire father (Melvyn Douglas) are aboard the Queen Anne and headed for Europe. Harvey is a world-class brat who thinks it’s okay to drink six ice cream sodas. Punished by the gods of the high seas for his childish gluttony, Harvey becomes nauseous and leans a little too far over the rail to spew the remnants of his tasty treat. Splash! Into the ocean goes Harvey and nobody seems to notice. He is eventually rescued by Manuel (Tracy), a Portuguese sailor working on an American fishing ship captained by Disko Troop (the great Lionel Barrymore). Evidently Harvey didn’t sustain a concussion, because when he wakes up he’s as pompous as ever. He demands that Captain Troop drop everything and turn the ship toward shore. Troop missed the memo that said Harvey is lord and master and so he tells the boy a foreign word—NO. Instead, Harvey is informed that he must spend the next three months aboard a ship inhabited by dead fish and unrefined sailors. Plus, he’s told he must work on the ship if he wants to eat. Oh, the inhumanity!

Put under the supervision of Manuel (who calls Harvey his little fish), Harvey refuses to do any work at all and shuns the friendly overtures of Dan (Mickey Rooney), the captain’s son. Once hunger kicks in, Harvey starts working in the ship galley. Over time, Harvey learns to perform various jobs and is eventually taught by Manuel how to fish. On one of their fishing trips in a skiff, Harvey fouls the line of other fisherman in order to catch a large halibut and win a contest. While Harvey is basking in the glow of success, Manuel is throwing the fish back in an effort to teach his little fish a lesson. This incident provokes an amazing result: Harvey actually feels ashamed and apologizes. From this point on, the salty, singing fisherman and the young would-be sailor form a bond. As a matter of fact, Harvey grows so fond of Manuel that he doesn’t want to be returned to his father.

Later, when the ship learns that a rival fishing ship is trying to beat them to port in an effort to get the best prices, Captain Troop decides they must make some bold moves. He orders the sails unfurled in dangerous weather conditions. Manuel volunteers for this task. Unfortunately the weather causes the mast to crack and Manuel is mortally wounded and trapped by the sails’ canvas and ropes in the water. In a heart-wrenching scene, it is decided that Manuel must be cut loose, sending him to the bottom of the sea to his death, This scene alone was most probably enough for Tracy to win the Oscar. His tearful goodbye to his little fish just break your heart. Bartholomew is also very moving in this scene. As a matter of fact, Bartholomew is exceedingly good for the remainder of the film. When the ship arrives at Gloucester, Harvey is reunited with his father. A moving memorial service is held for Manuel. It is here where the gulf between Mr. Cheyne and Harvey is closed. Mr. Cheyne sees that his son is no loner a spoiled brat, but a young man who has been profoundly changed by his experiences with Manuel.

Overall, this is a moving coming-of-age film. Tracy’s portrayal of the salt-of-the-earth (or sea in this case) Manuel is wonderful. Like many of his earlier roles, Tracy really develops this role into a memorable character. He gives Manuel many edges and does a good job of not over-playing his character into too much of a stereotype. In addition, Bartholomew is a delight to watch. Yes, his character is annoying in the beginning, but the personality changes he undergoes throughout the film seem believable. It is not easy to go from one of the most-irritating brats in screen history to a child who makes your heart break by the end of the film. Of course, Bartholomew had an excellent, seasoned co-star to help him along this difficult path. It is a shame that this film is not as well-known as it should be.

Kim Wilson is a history professor and the author of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die blog.

  • Tito Pannaggi

    This was a great film when I was a child, unfortunately the film isn’t so great anymore, but I still love it.

    • Beansarelli

      Tito, i gotta disagree with you.  The film still holds up so well.  My nieces and nephews, some in their 30’s and some in their pre-teens, just love this movie.  Still so poignant watching as Harvey shows his deep love and respect for Manuel at the end.  Tracy was magical in this role – light when it was needed and then tugging on your heartstrings at all the right places.  One of my all-time favorite films and always will be.

      • KenR

        I’m with you Beansarelli, not many quite like this one!

    • fbusch

      Tito, the dfilm hasn’t changed. Perhaps your inner child has died.

  • KenR

    I agree Kim, this is an all time great.

    Great Writing
    Great Photography
    Great Direction
    Great Acting
    Great Music
    All adds up to Great Entertainment.
    Should be more like this one.

  • Wayne P.

    Fine interesting point made about Spencer Tracy doing some great film work before teaming up with Kate Hepburn and they both did actually.  His was particularly excellent in 20,000 Years in SingSing, The Murder Man (good suspenser for its era), Fury, Boys Town (original and sequel), Captains Courageous (of course:), Edison, the Man and Northwest Passage.  In fact, IMHO he topped her for quality as she had Alice Adams, Holiday and Bringing up Baby that come to mind as fine efforts but could take a pass on Marjorie Morningstar and some other ‘sans-Spencer’ movies of hers!

    • Wayne P.

      Meant to say Morning Glory 1933 (of which Marjorie Morningstar was the remake of), was not her best performance but she won an Oscar (how I dont know; weak field?).  But, did forget to mention that Sylvia Scarlett, Stage Door and, naturally, The Philadelphia Story (anything with Cary Grant was box-office!) showed her acting skills to good advantage also.

  • Xalf18

    Thank you for a wonderful synopsis of my all-time favorite film.  I am a retired professor of Management who, during my teaching days, showed this film to my senior classes in Strategic Management.  I pointed out that Captains Courageous was a film whose subject was ahead of its time, the bonding of a child with a single parent (in this case a father–most unusual for the time), the parent substituting much needed love, caring, and attention with money and travel).  The emphasis was on the motto I have adopted for my classes: “Caring is not coddling”.  Tracy’s Manuel demonsrated this trait in no uncertain terms.  One of the most touching scenes in the movie is when Manuel is sitting in the stern of the skiff with Harvey in the bow, playing on his musical instrument, while talking about his (Manuel’s father and upbringing).  If you looked at Tracy’s eyes, you could not help but blubbering, as his eyes start shining with an expression of deepest love, respect, and compassion.

    I have loaned my copy of the film (on DVD) to many friends, who all agree with me that this film was one of the best of film history’s subject of coming of age films.

    By the way, Freddy Bartholomew received top billing, over Spencer Tracy, because at the time, he was considered a better audience draw (David Copperfield, Little Lord Fauntleroy, et al).  Moreover, what a supporting cast:  Mickey Rooney (still alive), Melvyn Douglas, Lionel Barrymore, John Carradine.  Importantly, but often overlooked is the role of the cook, a black man.  this black man was not portrayed as a Step’n’fetchit stereotype, but as an intelligent, wise, welcome part of the entire fishing crew.  He spoke Portugese with Manuel.

  • Menadennis763

    Yea-ho little fish, don’t cry don’t cry…  For some reason this little dittie by Spencer Tracy will always stay in my mind.

  • Matt Gaffney

    I first saw this movie when I was a little boy on Channel 11 in LA. There was “Colgate Theater” on Friday nights, circa 1957-1957. I showed it to my daughter when she was little & she loved it too. I just saw it recently on TCM & it was,is & always will be a Classic.

  • Mohan Sagar

    A superb film; one which I highly recommend to fathers and sons to watch together.

  • florencemf

    This is one of Tracy’s finest performances — The Old Man and the Sea is another one which bears thinking about.  I saw it first with my eldest sister in the 1950’s and it left a lasting impression on me.

  • Carolynfair5

    I saw ‘Captains Courageous’ when I was in my 20s.  I experienced this magnificant “culture clash” film on my small screen TV on a rainy Saturday afternoon.  I think it’s Tracy’s finest film or at least as great an acting performance, along with his “The Old Man and The Sea.”  Yea, I think his entire life diminished when he got involved with Katie Hepburn.

  • Xalf18

    I am surprised that very few viewers mentioned “Boy’s Town” with Tracy as Father Flanagan.  The movie won the Oscar that year.  Tracy also followed up with “Men of Boy’s Town”.  He was superb in “Old Man and the Sea” and “Bad Day at Black Rock”.  His Jimmy Doolittle in “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” was not a great role for Tracy.   What about “San Francisco” with Gable and Jeanette MacDonald–belting out the song “San Francisco”, with the great 1906 earthquake as its climax; “Boomtown” also with Gable.

    • Wayne P.

      “A Guy Named Joe” was a great pic with Spencer and Irene Dunne…its the original that “Always” in the 80’s by Spielberg was based on, only with firemen instead of Air Force pilots as the lead characters but both are good.  Glad you noted “San Francisco” as had forgotten to name that in my earlier blog post…its right up there with my fave film about the 1906 earthquake “The Shock”  made in 1922 with the great Lon Chaney Sr….thanks! 

  • NonaLyn

    Undoubtably one of the very best films ever done…I know much of the dialogue by heart.  Even though your reviewer makes a couple of mistakes in his synopsis he doesn’t fail to expose the true genius of this masterpiece.  I admit I cannot accept the remakes as comparable but I don’t think some films should be redone and this is one of those.  I believe even todays techno-savvy youth and grown-ups can connect with this story (in this original version) and the feelings it manifests.  The stellar cast manages to evoke true emotion that runs the entire spectrum, with the feelings being drawn not only from the audience but watching the cast at first repel, then tolerate and eventually accept this misguided little boy.  Manuel (Tracy), Harvey (Bartholemew), Disko (Barrymore, what an actor…check out “On Borrowed Time”) and Long Jack (Carradine), with a host of fabulous supporting actors make this movie timeless.

  • Ekim Smada

    One of my all time favorites! I also like Northwest Passage which just recently came out on DVD. I have Edison The Man on DVD. We don’t want to forget Dr Jeckel and Mr Hyde. Those four are my Tracy “Bests”

  • HassoBenSoba

    This may be my #1 film of all time—possibly tied with Paul Muni’s “The Life of Emile Zola”, also from 1937. My Amazon review has been posted for years, where I really poured it on in my praise for this great movie, not only for the film itself but for the historcial/cultural era that it represents.

    Most comments mention, appropriately, Tracy’s fine performance; only a few mention the
    work of Freddie Bartholomew—-how does one begin to explain the depth and variety in acting skill of this amazing young man?

    Let’s also recognize the fabulous direction of Victor Fleming, without whom this film would not have achieved its greatness. The slow, methodical and totally believable buidling of the relationship between misguided young boy and his surrogate father is a cinematic marvel to behold; you can keep your space-age special effects and eye-popping, CGI graphics— Fleming, Tracy and Bartholomew convey the true heart and magic of filmaking.

    A final mention– writers John Lee Mahin and Marc Connelly, who took a drab, rather preachy and lifeless novel (I admit this is probably my shortcoming, and apologize profusely to the spirit of Kipling), tossed most of it out, and created an intensely moving saga of the emotional bond between two characters that will live on as long as great cinema is still being celebrated.


  • HassoBenSoba

    I just read the comment below regarding the character of “Doc”, the ship’s cook, played by actor Sam “Deacon” MacDaniel. Another example of the first-rate, multi-dimensional writing in the film by Mahin and Connelly. Note how, in the chaos of the film’s shocking climax, Manuel shouts out to Doc in PORTUGESE to tell him of the extent of his injuries…so that he can spare young Harvey the horrible details; Doc then translates to Captain Disko, who is determined to save the fatally injured Manuel.

    What a great “device” on the part of the writers, since they created not only this dramatic sequence, but the ENTIRE relationship between Manuel and Harvey—-none of which has ANY counterpart in Kipling’s novel. 

    Incidentally, RIGHT AT THIS POINT in the copy of the film that had been used for commercial VHS release—just as the mast falls into the sea and the crucial dialogue begins— there is a REEL CHANGE, and the audio abruptly lowers and the dialogue becomes more difficult to follow. The problem is somewhat less noticeable in the DVD version, even though I think the same master copy was used.

    Incidentally (#2)–the folk song that Manuel sings “(Yea-ho, little fish”) is an actual Portugese melody that I am familiar with as a Christmas carol, one of the many arranged by John Rutter. These old folk melodies tended to get mixed up into hybrid versions of themselves, so the carol version is only partially similar. Thankfully, Captains Courageous’ great composer, Franz Waxman, made full use of the folk-tune during the latter section of the opening-credit music. Absolutely gorgeous, as only old-time Hollywood could produce.

    • KenR

      Have to agree with all your intelligent observations and comments H.B.Sobba.
      Good to see such thorough writing on the qualities in life, and Movies, being too often overlooked in a ‘game’ obsessed society. Many marvelous blogs posted for this classic!

  • Publius

    This movie was one of the first Tracys that I saw, and I totally agree with the reviewer.  He had a Portugese accent, was great in the role he portrayed; combined humor, pathos and realism to such a degree that for a long time it was one of my favorite Spencer Tracy movies.  However the MGM version of the Kipling story was not the original one.  Manuel is really a minor character in the novel, and the rich kid has more adventures with the boy who is the son of the captain (played by Lionel Barrymore).  There was only one time I ever saw the story filmed as written, and that was the 1981 version with Karl Malden.  All the same, the movie is a very good one, carefully re-written to showcase the talents of Tracy.  Many great moments in the picture.  Probably the most heart-breaking one was when Manuel drowns while the other people try to save him.

  • footballsux

    I never tire of seeing this movie. Tracy, as always, is brilliant, and Freddie was one of the greatest child actors of all time, but sadly, largely forgotten today. In addition, we also have the wonderful Lionel Barrymore, a monumental character actor, the likes of which dissappeared from Hollywood decades ago. This is a great movie with a great message. 

  • Lovemyshepherd

    one of the best movies ever made…………a must see                                                            

  • Magman

    Tracey’s performance in Captains Courageous matches his performance in Boys Town. Excellent !

  • DollyT

    Don’t forget “The Old Man And The Sea”

  • DollyT

    These were films that formed the foundation of my beliefs as a child and I regard as the true treasures of Hollywood. These were the first I chose for may vast collection of film classics and what true acting proves to be an art.

  • Wayne C. Gray

    Whatever happened to the Captains Courages movie produced in the 1970’s with Karl Malden?

  • DollyT

    Wow Mom! They made some great movies when you were a kid! My son’s response after I let him view my Classic Films Captains Courageous, Grapes of Wrath, Sorry Wrong Number.

    • KenR

      Great news in here Dolly, all it takes is the right introduction. Just resently I saw some young folk looking through the Classics section at a video store. When I asked them if they were buying something for an older relative, they said ‘NO’ for ourselves!…Weve just discovered how good some of this stuff is and tired of todays films. Then asked if I would recommend something to buy. They even went on to complain that the store did not have enough of a range! These kids know whats going on. KenR

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