Nominated for four Oscars (winner of one), Victor Fleming's Captains Courageous is a warm-hearted, old-fashioned, and quaintly corny little adventure story based on a novel by Rudyard Kipling. It earned nominations for Best Editing, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture, but the film's only win went to Spencer Tracy -- for playing a broad (yet lovable) Portuguese caricature named Manuel.
Harvey Cheyne is a spoiled little bugger indeed. When he's not bullying or whining or using his rich father's name as currency, he's just a stuck-up little jerk in general. But after Harvey's latest scam goes awry, his loving-yet-harried tycoon of a father decides to bring the kid on his next business trip. Thanks to his own ego, Harvey ends up falling off a cruise liner, only to be rescued by the aforementioned Portuguese fisherman. Stuck about the fishing trawler We're Here, Harvey must get used to his smelly surroundings and learn the value of humility ... because the kid's got a few solid months before he can return to the lap of luxury.
While it's true that much of Captains Courageous will seem trite and cornball-y by today's standards, there's still some certifiable warmth and sincerity to this simple little story. We all now from frame one that nasty lil Harvey is about to learn some valuable life lessons, but Fleming and his screenwriters are experienced enough to throw a few curves into the road. The kid starts out as a serious headache, so the fact that his gradual thaw takes a little while works just fine. Taken as an adventure story over a coming-of-age tale, Captains Courageous works just dandy.
Young Freddie Bartholomew is devilishly entertaining during Harvey's early mischief, and the kid actually brings some emotional weight to his later scenes, once the appropriate lessons have been learned. As the salty We're Here captain, Lionel Barrymore steals just about every scene he's in, while Melvyn Douglas does a fine job as Harvey's loving yet perpetually distracted papa. As far as Mr. Tracy's Oscar-winning performance goes, well, it's really kinda broad and exaggerated and sometimes silly ... on the surface, anyway. Once you get used to the actor's cartoonish Portuguese accent, there's a real sweetness to his performance that's absolutely integral to the film.
While perhaps not the "all-time classic" that some of its contemporaries are, Captains Courageous still stands up pretty well today. Provided you approach the movie with the right frame of mind (i.e. you saw it when you were a kid and you loved it), it could make for a worthwhile rental for "Classic Hollywood Movie Night" -- but only if your kids don't mind goofy ol' black & white movies.
Video:The 1937 movie comes to DVD in its original full frame format. Picture quality is quite impressive for a flick seven decades old.
Audio: The film is presented in its original Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono audio track, in your choice of English or French. Optional subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.
Two shorts are included, should you want to make an old-fashioned "movie night" out of the Captains Courageous experience: The Little Maestro is a live-action piece about a poor violinist mistaken for a world-renowned musician, while Little Buck Cheeser is a Rudolf Ising animated short about a mouse who builds a rocketship to the moon.
Also included is a 12-minute Captains Courageous radio promo entitled Leo Is On the Air and a pair of theatrical trailers.
Maybe I'm just a sucker for very old movies about spoiled rich kids who mature only after falling off an ocean liner and being forced to work on a colorful fishing boat for four months, but I had a pretty good time with my first visit with Captains Courageous. Those who already adore the flick should be very happy with this DVD treatment from Warner Bros.