Captains Courageous is not a perfect film; the setup to the main action felt like it ran a bit too long, I never understood why the main character had an accent, I didn’t buy Spencer Tracy’s casting, and the story is a bit too all-American red-blooded hard-work-prevails for me. But nevertheless it was strangely affecting.
The main character, Harvey Cheyne, is the spoiled-as-hell son of a New York businessman, who’s used to getting his way by bribing people and threatening to sic his father on those not giving him his way. His father Frank is too caught up in business to set him straight, but when Harvey’s boarding school expels him for three months, Frank is forced to take Harvey along on a business trip to Europe. Harvey is horsing around on deck as their steamship is passing through the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, and falls overboard – right in front of a dinghy piloted by Portuguese fisherman Manuel (Spencer Tracy – really), crewman on a fishing schooler from Gloucester, Massachusetts. Manuel rescues Harvey and brings him on board the schooner, where the captain tells Harvey they’ll bring him back to shore – after they’ve completed their fishing, in three months’ time. While stuck on board the schooner, Harvey learns valuable lessons about decency, fair play, and hard work, and comes to see Manuel as a surrogate father.
So, here’s the thing: Harvey is an American kid, but is played by an English child actor, Freddie Bartholomew. Bartholomew’s great, but his use of his own English accent throughout the film got a little baffling – especially since Harvey’s father has an American accent. It’s a small nit to pick, but still bugged me since it could have been taken care of so easily (give Harvey’s father an English accent too! Set the boarding school in London! Set the whole beginning in London!). Casting the Irish-American Spencer Tracy as a Portuguese fisherman seemed more egregious; Tracy’s accent is a little weak in spots and he seems to have some obvious makeup. But there’s a whole host of in-and-out accents throughout, with much of the fishing boat’s crew struggling to keep up their Massachusetts accents; to be fair, though, only New England-born folk like me would notice that last bit.
Also, you’re watching this for the story rather than the accents anyway. And fortunately, what Bartholomew and Tracy lack in dialect accuracy, they make up for with chemistry. While it sometimes felt like Harvey’s embrace of the fisherman’s life felt a little rushed, there’s a charm to Bartholomew and Tracy’s scenes that made Manuel and Harvey’s bond believable. Interestingly, their relationship is wholly invented for the film – Captains Courageous was based on a Rudyard Kipling novel, but in the book Harvey is about 5 years older and bonds in friendship with another cabin boy instead, with Manuel merely being the sailor who happened to save him before fading back into the rest of the crew. I haven’t yet found the justification for why the filmmakers chose to spin Kipling’s tale to have an absentee-father angle, but it works – when Harvey is finally back on land, he and his father have an uneasy reunion, and even though Frank is being perfectly patient and loving, you completely understand why Harvey wants to stay with the crew.
Ultimate the film was a smash hit with critics, and Spencer Tracy won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role.