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Warner Home Video presents
Harvey: I want to be with you, Manuel. Please.
DVD ReviewFew movies we loved as children retain their appeal when viewed from an adult perspective, but Captains Courageous is a rare and wonderful exception. One of the finest family films ever made, this exciting and immensely human adventure story, based on Rudyard Kipling's classic novel, continues to charm, thrill, and move us almost 70 years after its initial release. Director Victor Fleming (Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz) embraces the yarn's tough and tender aspects, and guides Spencer Tracy to a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar as the big-hearted, serene Portuguese fisherman, Manuel Fidello, who teaches a spoiled young boy to value hard work, simple pleasures, and abiding friendships more than wealth, status, and material possessions.
Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew) is a snot-nosed brat of the first order. Pampered by servants in his Manhattan mansion, able to draw at will from a bottomless bank account, and neglected by his widowed, workaholic tycoon father (Melvyn Douglas), the 10-year-old monster knows how to get what he wants and manipulate others like a mini Machiavelli. He tries to bribe a teacher at his ritzy Connecticut boarding school to make a history exam easier, and blackmails a distraught classmate in the hope of gaining admittance into an exclusive club. His out-of-control behavior leads to a school suspension, which at last wakes up his oblivious father, who vows to more actively participate in Harvey's upbringing. A London business trip provides a prime bonding opportunity, but while sailing overseas on a luxurious liner, Harvey gets into mischief and tumbles overboard. Yes, overboard!
Luckily, the area is a hot spot for fishermen, and Harvey is quickly rescued from the frigid ocean water by Manuel, who brings him onto the We're Here, a fishing vessel out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Once he regains his strength, Harvey confronts the boat's crusty captain (Lionel Barrymore) and demands to be taken immediately to either London or New York. The captain—unimpressed by Harvey's pedigree and offended by his insolence—scoffs at the request, and informs him they won't be returning to shore for at least three months. At first, Harvey throws a tantrum and refuses to chip in and earn his keep during the voyage, but the brusque, blue-collar crew won't tolerate his antics. Manuel takes it upon himself to whip his "little fish" into shape, and his firm hand, upright values, and subtle encouragement slowly command the boy's respect, teach him honor and discipline, and sow the seeds of a deep friendship.
Captains Courageous focuses on Harvey's transformation and Manuel's irrepressible spirit, but also paints a detailed portrait of life aboard a fishing smack—the chores, challenges, camaraderie, and teamwork that turn a group of disparate men into a family. Although rear projection work dilutes realism somewhat, Fleming intersperses enough actual seafaring footage to suspend our disbelief, so at times we can almost taste the salt air, feel the ocean spray, and smell the stench of fresh fish on deck. The screenplay also sprinkles a generous amount of humor throughout the film (most of it impeccably delivered by Tracy), which helps us develop a strong kinship with the characters—so much so that we, too, feel like a member of the We're Here crew.
Shirley Temple aside, Bartholomew reigned supreme as the 1930s biggest child star, and Captains Courageous reminds us what a talented, natural performer he was. Never does he mug or cop an overly cute pose, and he cries with far more sincerity than most moppet actors. In the early part of the film, he adopts an obnoxious, superior air that's downright despicable, but takes care not to overdo the attitude. And when Harvey finally learns how to love later on, his attachment to Manuel feels warm and genuine.
Tracy wrestled with his role during filming, always doubting his performance and worrying over the Portuguese accent and the ditties he would sing while playing an old hurdy-gurdy. "If anyone had predicted that the part would win an Academy Award when I was working before the cameras," he later said, "I'd have thought he was delirious." Yet the portrayal remains one of Tracy's most beloved and affecting. The quiet strength, simple spirituality, and paternal tenderness Manuel imparts speak not just to Harvey, but to us all, and Tracy beautifully embodies those qualities.
Fleming, however, sets the tone, and—like he would do in Gone With the Wind and Oz—masterfully balances adventure and spectacle with a child-like wonder and pitch-perfect sentiment. Captains Courageous could easily become maudlin and trite, but Fleming keeps it grounded, vital, and, thus, timeless. Another exceptional film from an exceptional—and very underrated—director.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: Warner's winning ways with vintage transfers continues with this above average effort. For the most part, the image remains clear and surprisingly vibrant, although various age-related defects occasionally dot the print. A pesky black vertical line ever-so-slightly intrudes now and then, and medium grain—a typical element of 1930s films—persists throughout. Gray levels, however, are nicely varied, blacks possess solid depth, and contrast and shadow detail are fine. For a 69-year-old film, Captains Courageous looks mighty good.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: The original mono track supplies dynamic audio, especially during the climactic ocean race sequence. The brisk wind, crashing waves, and billowy sails sound crisp and lively, immersing us in the drama of the moment, while quieter stretches lack the pops and crackles so prevalent among films from this period. A bit of hiss remains audible, but dialogue is rarely compromised, and Franz Waxman's music score adds robust accents to the action.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 31 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
Layers Switch: 50m:02s
A Leo Is on the Air radio promo hypes the release of Captains Courageous by presenting a selection of music and audio scenes from the film. The announcer calls the movie one of MGM's "proudest achievements" during the 12-minute montage. Rounding out the supplements, two theatrical re-release trailers document the picture's enduring appeal. The first, from 1973, promotes Captains Courageous as part of a children's matinee series, while the second, from 1946, minimizes the participation of Bartholomew, who by then was just another has-been child actor. Those watching this preview—if unfamiliar with the film—could easily assume Mickey Rooney co-stars with Tracy, as he did in Boys Town and Men of Boys Town a few years before, and Bartholomew is but a mere supporting player. A disgraceful way to treat such a talented and once-valued performer.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsA timeless family film packed with adventure and emotion, Captains Courageous far outclasses more contemporary movies in the same vein. Victor Fleming directs with customary gusto, Spencer Tracy files one of his finest performances, and Warner supplies another stellar transfer—just three of several reasons why this rousing classic deserves a spot on every movie lover's shelf. Highly recommended.
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