Captains Courageous (1937)

Spencer Tracy and Freddy Bartholomew
Spencer Tracy and Freddy Bartholomew

'Captains Courageous' is a classic adventure film made in 1937 directed by Victor Fleming and starring Spencer Tracy, Freddie Bartholomew, Lionel Barrymore, and Melvyn Douglas. It was an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's 1897 novel and is a "coming of age" story told with warmth and feeing but without being cloying and sentimental.

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Up to his death in 1936 Rudyard Kipling refused all attempts to dramatize his work on the screen, fearing that they would be cheapened and made unrecognisable. The year after his death Hollywood adapted three of his books for the screen: 'Wee Willy Winkie', 'Captains Courageous', and 'The Light That Failed'. The screenwrites of 'Captains Courageous' remained faithful to the original and a contemporary review in the New York Times said it "brings vividly to life every page of Kipling's novel".

The movie was a commercial and critical success, and was MGM's second highest grossing films of 1937 (behind 'Saratoga'). It received four Academy Award nominations, winning the Best Actor Oscar for Spencer Tracy and losing for Best Picture, Best Film Editing, and Best Screenplay. Tracy won the Best Actor Award again the following year for 'Boys Town'.

The movie plot follows the novel closely and tells the story of an over-privileged rich-kid, used to getting his own way, played by Freddie Bartholomew, who falls out of a luxury liner and is rescued at sea by a fishing boat on its way out for the season. The captain refuses to turn back, so the boy is forced to stay. With help from a Portuguese fisherman, played by Spencer Tracy, he matures and begins to see life from a different perspective.

The movie is played by an outstandingly strong cast, led by the 13 year old Freddie Bartholomew who proves himself an astute and intuitive actor. It would have been easy to make his character deeply unsympathetic, but we find we can understand him and the reasons for his actions. Spencer Tracy got the Best Actor Oscar for his fine portrayal of Manuel, the Portuguese fisherman and there are strong performances too from Lionel Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, Mickey Rooney and John Carradine. For sheer acting quality in depth, the movie is hard to beat.

The ending is heartbreaking and deeply moving and captured with first class acting and beautiful cinematography. 'Captains Courageous' is a wonderful story, poignant, and sad but also ultimately uplifting. With humor, pathos, and an interesting moral, this is one of the best family movies Hollywood ever produced.

Main Cast

Freddie Bartholomew ... Harvey Cheyne
Spencer Tracy ... Manuel Fidello
Lionel Barrymore ... Captain Disko Troop
Melvyn Douglas ... Frank Burton Cheyne
Charley Grapewin ... Uncle Salters
Mickey Rooney ... Dan Troop
John Carradine ... Long Jack
Oscar O'Shea ... Captain Walt Cushman
Jack La Rue ... Priest
Walter Kingsford ... Dr. Finley
Donald Briggs ... Bob Tyler Sam McDaniel ... "Doc"
Bill Burrud ... Charles Jamison (as Billy Burrud)


Director ... Victor Fleming
Producer ... Louis D. Lighton
Screenplay ... John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly, Dale Van Every
Written by ... Rudyard Kipling (novel)
Music ... Franz Waxman
Cinematography ... Harold Rosson
Format ... B & W
Distribution Company ... Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date ... May 11, 1937
Running time ... 115 minutes

Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Actor ... Spencer Tracy
Three Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Picture ... Louis D. Lighton
Editing ... Elmo Veron
Best Screenplay ... John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly, Dale Van Every