Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Captain’s Courageous 1937

It’s hard to believe that Spencer Tracy actually won a best actor Oscar for this film, but he did, and when they delivered it to him they had inscribed it to Dick Tracy who probably would have been just as good in this role. Tracy who has dark Harpo Marx curls and a Portuguese accent that comes and comes with the tide, was all wrong for this part. He’s too stark, hard and urban to be playing the soft spoken and gentle Portuguese fisherman and it’s almost painful to watch him struggle with this role. In later films, especially some of the ones he did with Hepburn and some of his late career comedies like “Father Of The Bride” he would show that softer gentler side of himself but at this point in his career he was not capable of showing these emotions without a fight and this shows in his performance. This was a big prestige M.G.M. production directed by the competent but overrated house director Victor Fleming and based on the classic Rudyard Kipling novel about a spoiled rich brat played by the very good child actor Freddie Bartholomew. Bartholomew’s character is generally awful and impossible for much of the early part of the film and his extensive problems are acerbated by his neglectful and self-involved rich business tycoon dad played by Melvyn Douglas. Then one day on a luxury liner voyage with Douglas little Freddie falls overboard and is fished out of the ocean by Tracy. And here for me things start to get dicey and uncomfortable. Freddie is stuck on the fishing boat for three months (there are no scenes that show Douglas even worried about the fate of his son) and at first Freddie is difficult and not liked by the captain played by the crusty Lionel Barrymore or any of the other fishermen except for Tracy who takes him under his wing and slowly teaches him how to fish and how to take care of himself. It was impossible for me not to see this relationship between Tracy and Freddie as a man boy love story. Tracy is very touchy feely with the kid and calls him his little fish over and over in tender and affectionate ways, and Bartholomew obviously has a big time crush (I should just come out and say that he’s in love with him) on Tracy and there are several scenes that show this rather clearly. Freddy even has a fit of jealousy when Tracy talks about finding some women when he gets back to shore and when he sees how upset Freddy gets over this, tells him no there are no women and not to worry. I can’t recall another child actor in this period of Hollywood filmmaking that is as sexualized as Bartholomew is in this film. I suppose you can take this movie as just a good old fashioned adventure story but I simply can’t accept this common and naive reading of the movie after seeing what I saw. SPOILER ALERT! Bartholomew’s grief and sorrow over the death of Tracy is so deep that it comes across as that of a loved one mourning over the loss of a lover. I never read the book so I have no idea if this homoerotic overlay is in the novel, but you would have to be asleep at the wheel not to pick up on it in the movie. The production values are ok for the period, but the process shots are glaring and the rubber fish are laughable. Also in the cast are the terrific John Carradine and a young Mickey Rooney in a small supporting role, one year away from becoming a big star. Besides Tracy’s best actor Oscar it was also nominated for best picture, screenplay and editing.


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