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Monday, October 30, 2006


Captains Courageous and Freddie's Liberty No-Show
Jason Apuzzo over at LIBERTAS recommended Captains Courageous a week or so ago and I decided to take another look at it. You go for years ignoring pictures like this and they’re always a surprise upon revisiting. C.C. asserted itself often enough in documentaries where that clip of Spencer Tracy singing with an accent played seemingly on a loop. For a lot of people, it summed up the meaning of a classic movie moment. Captains Courageous has long been recognized as Tracy’s picture, but for me, the billing tells the truer story. This is Freddie Bartholomew’s show, and he’s fantastic throughout. I’d forgotten how effective kid actors could be in those days. What a shame Freddie had to grow up, and how unfortunate that MGM dropped him so callously after typecasting the child into a rut during his prime earning years. Audiences react differently to bratty kids in movies. It’s enough for most of us to wait for the character to receive his comeuppance and become a better boy. Sometimes if the youngster is particularly revolting like Jackie Searle or David Holt, we long for him to be punished straightaway, if not killed off altogether. Bartholomew walks that fine line of viewer tolerance, but never crosses it. I was happy to see him fall off the ocean liner, but I didn’t want to see him drown. Is this what separates great child actors from merely competent ones? For such a fine performer, Freddie got a bum deal in American movies. His British propriety looked sissified to many, and some of the roles seemed old-fashioned even then (Little Lord Fauntleroy). I’ll bet there were gangs of boys waiting around stage doors to beat him up after personal appearances. His was the persistent voice of reason that kept scrappier youth like Mickey Rooney and Jackie Cooper out of harm’s way. Too often his character came across as a prig and a party pooper, but more about Freddie later …

Accents are a curse upon otherwise fine actors. I cringe whenever John Barrymore or Laurence Olivier enter a room and make with the foreign inflections, because you know you’re stuck with it for the run of the feature, and most of the time, that’s agony. Even regional dialects culled from within our own shores can play like broken air-conditioners in a suffocating room. Of the countless southerners I’ve encountered over a life lived in Dixie environs, none have addressed me as Orson Welles does other cast members in The Long, Hot Summer. My query, then, to MGM producers --- Why must Spencer Tracy be Portuguese at all? They’re not shipping out of Portugal in Captains Courageous, and I dare say, fishermen from that country would almost certainly be loathe to go about speaking like Chico Marx. Joan Crawford immediately drew that comparison when she first saw Tracy in costume, and it’s impossible to watch Captains Courageous without making the unfortunate connection. I keep thinking of how powerful Spence could have been if they’d just let him use his natural voice (and that’s director Victor Fleming with the actor on the set of C.C.). As it is, I actually prefer Freddie’s scenes with Lionel Barrymore; indeed this would be one of that actor’s final roles standing up, as within a year he’d be confined to either crutches or a wheelchair. Tracy does become more palatable as the story progresses --- the real Oscar-worthiness of his performance lay in Spence’s ability to overcome the disadvantages inherent in the role (and that ringlet-curled hair!). It may have been the engraver’s idea of a joke when they inscribed the name Dick Tracy on the initial Best Actor award he was given for Captains Courageous, but the more unwelcome gesture came when MGM chief Louis B. Mayer stepped to the podium that night to pay his own acid tribute --- Tracy is a fine actor, but he is most important because he understands why it is necessary to take orders from the front office. Was this a public admonition for the sometimes drink-addled Tracy, whose disappearances from the set had caused production delays and overruns? Captains Courageous actually had a negative cost of 1.6 million, which was considerable money for 1937 (but surprisingly, the same year's A Day At The Races cost even more). Domestic rentals were 1.6 million, with foreign at 1.4. Final profit for the picture was $355,000.




So it’s designated a Family Classic, but would youngsters today be enticed by the likes of Captains Courageous? Initial obstacles are considerable. Black-and-white, for one thing, but that Warners DVD is sufficiently rich to hopefully overcome at least some of that prejudice. Otherwise, I think it may still work with kids. Has anyone tried it on theirs? Any film that traffics in emotional content like this is a gamble by definition. Chances are they’ll laugh or dismiss it as hopelessly maudlin pap (but who knew they'd shot that final sequence in front of Andy Hardy's house as this backlot candid reveals ...). How many movies today deal (seriously) with coming of age subjects? Father-son alienation and reconciliation? You have to admire anyone’s sheer audacity in playing such material straight, for there’s nothing I can think of that’s harder to pull off. If this kind of sentiment works even for an instant, all else is forgiven and you’ve got a picture that will be admired and warmly remembered. I’ve read accounts of those who saw Captains Courageous first-run and never forgot the impact. We can’t know what it was like for audiences in 1937, but after watching that DVD last week, I could guess. This is yet another of those movies you think you’re seeing from an objective distance until one little moment comes along and there you are with the same tear in your eye that the rest of them dabbed away nearly seventy years ago. Any picture that can deliver even so fleeting a glow is well worth cherishing.





















Back to Freddie. Long after the world’s applause had subsided, Freddie
Bartholomew took to the road a six-foot gangly stage hopeful in a stock version of The Hasty Heart during the Spring of 1948. It seemed incredible that David Copperfield himself would turn up in a backwoods jerkwater town like ours, but Liberty owner Ivan Anderson and his manager Colonel Roy Forehand weren’t kidding when they advertised Bartholomew and the original Broadway cast for one performance only on March 16. Rest assured these admission prices ($3.00 for the lower floor!) were quite unheard of in a town where big-time stage attractions usually amounted to no-name bands, hillbilly singers, and sometime cowboy sidekicks (previously reported on HERE). Mail order tickets were something I never experienced at the Liberty in all my years going there. Truly this was the season event for 1948 … and then it got cancelled. The specifics of what happened are lost in the mists of time, but Mr. Anderson was determined to get back the $1,592.37 in lost revenue (mostly those advance tickets he had to make good on). Toward that end, he filed a lawsuit against the stage company after tracing their whereabouts to Savannah, Georgia, where lawyers on behalf of the Liberty Theatre impounded all the props and costumes for The Hasty Heart. The defendant was identified as one Larry Lerouge, representing Imperial Players out of New York. By this time, Freddie had repaired to his hotel digs, having lost a tooth filling. Freddie has played shows when he had a fever of 103 and a cracked rib, said his chagrined wife when advised the show may not go on, and shortly after Freddie defended his own thespic honor by declaring this was merely an argument between theatres and managers having nothing to do with him. With regards the final outcome, I’ve no idea as to whether Mr. Anderson got his money back, though I suspect a few of those ticket holders may still be waiting to see The Hasty Heart on the Liberty’s stage …

2 Comments:

Blogger silentfilmlegend said...

I'm 25 now, but I remember sitting down with my parents as a kid to watch Captains Courageous. Didn't mind the black and white one bit, but I had a sneaking suspicion they were trying to teach me a lesson about being spoiled that I didn't want to learn. I hated movies with a lesson for children! I like the film much more today and agree that had Tracy not been forced to do that stupid accent the role might today be considered one of the very finest performances of the 1930s.

6:39 AM  
Anonymous JIM ENGEL said...

I first saw it 30 yrs or so ago (I'm 50)...it left a deep impression on me--PARTICULARLY Tracy & his demise...I picked up the DVD a coupla months ago, & have been waiting for just the right time... your piece may have triggered it. Thanks.

8:56 PM  

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