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Captains Courageous

Besides being a rousing boy's adventure yarn, 1937's Captains Courageous draws into question the career of director Victor Fleming. Having been a racecar driver, he entered Hollywood as a stuntman and in 1915 started working as a cinematographer, which then led to directing four years later. He became a proficient studio man, directing Jean Harlow in Red Dust and Bombshell, which led to 1939's double threat of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. After which he directed only six more films (including 1948's troubled Joan of Arc) before dying of a heart attack in 1949. And yet for directing two of the most celebrated films in Hollywood history (GWTW is fourth and Oz sixth on the AFI's list of the 100 best American films of all time), Victor Fleming receives little to no credit. Gone with the Wind is and always will be David O. Selznick's paramount achievement, and Fleming was among three directors to work on it. But while Wizard suffered less interference, Fleming seems to get credit for either project only when attention is called to the fact that he directed both in the same year. Unfortunately for his legacy, Victor Fleming is trapped in an auteur's paradox: He helmed two of the most famous films of all time, and as the director he should receive some credit, but he doesn't have the sort of personality that makes these works seem distinctly his in the auteurist tradition. Captains Courageous is another fine picture by Fleming, and it sheds some light on why he's not better revered. Working from the story by Rudyard Kipling, the story follows Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew), who's a young boy sheltered by his rich father (Melvyn Douglas) and has little understanding of the world, all of which changes when he takes a ride on an ocean liner and gets knocked overboard. He's saved by Manuel Fidello (Spencer Tracy, doing an accent that sounds a bit like Chico Marx) and is taken on board the fishing vessel We're Here, where he's told he can't be taken to port until fishing season is over. As a pampered youth, he tries to get the crew to take him home immediately and is even more reluctant to work for his keep. But when threatened with starvation, he grudgingly takes part. Slowly — and with the gentle nudges of Manuel — Harvey becomes a part of the crew that's led by Disko (Lionel Barrymore) and his son Dan (Mickey Rooney), and he even becomes friends with Long Jack (John Carradine). The boy becomes so enraptured with the seafaring life that, when it seems they're about to finish their tour, he wants to stick around. But life at sea is not without its difficulties, and things reach a turning point when rough waters cause an unexpected tragedy.

*          *          *

Ultimately, the studio system allowed more freedoms in the body of a director's career. Today, filmmakers live and die by their latest success, but in the studios' assembly-line structure, experienced directors were granted more leeway, and they were constantly at work. Victor Fleming, like Michael Curtiz and Mervyn Leroy, worked enough that one gets the sense that (unlike today) directing to him was more of a vocation than a passion. Which is not to say that he was a hack — he was well-suited to the adventure genre, and many of his best efforts have a connection to exploration and excitement (he was good friends with fellow racing enthusiast Howard Hawks). And with Captains Courageous, he does a fine job adapting Kipling's story to the big screen. His ace in the hole was Freddie Bartholomew, one of the great child actors in cinema, who plays well against the tough love provided by Spencer Tracy. Fleming's work here is solid — Courageous is a fine adventure film, the sort of which still enchants, made with little pretension and an eye for moving the story forward. In that sense, Fleming deserves credit for knowing good material when he saw it. Warner Home Video presents the title on DVD in a strong full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a good black-and-white source-print with Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Supplements include short film "The Little Maestro" (11 min.) starring Jerry Bergen, who makes the most of his diminutive status, and the cartoon "Little Buck Cheeser"(8 min.) in which a bunch of mice go to the moon (which is, of course, made of cheese). Also included are the radio promo "Leo is on the Air" (13 min.) and two trailers for the feature title. Keep-case.
—DSH



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