Movies And The Culture Wars: Part 2 Captains Courageous: 1937

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Movies And The Culture Wars: Part 2 Captains Courageous: 1937

This is the 2nd of three guest posts I did for Ladd Ehlinger’s site back in late 2011. I’m reprint­ing them here (With Ladd’s per­mis­sion) because I think the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump is a sig­nif­i­cant event in the cul­ture wars and these posts (and the fol­low ups that I intend to write) serve to explain what hap­pened to our friends on the left who are still pulling out their hair over the events of Novem­ber. While Ladd’s old blog isn’t there you can find the orig­i­nal piece via the way­back machine.

One of the things about the pas­sage of time is that it changes perspective.

In the 50’s the pro­duc­ers of the British TV series The Adven­tures of Robin Hood used Ring Lard­ner Jr., unwel­come in the US for TV capposter1work due to his com­mu­nist con­nec­tions (which he stated as late as 1987 he did not regret) under an assumed name to write episodes that he glee­fully described as attacks on Cap­i­tal­ism. When viewed today, how­ever, these sto­ries that sup­pos­edly cel­e­brated col­lec­tivism instead come across as a love let­ter to the Catholic Church and a bas­tion against tyranny. A mes­sage that mod­ern lib­er­als, nor­mally happy to view Lardner’s work, do not appreciate.

This dynamic comes to mind when exam­in­ing the 1937 pic­tureCap­tains Coura­geous star­ring Spencer Tracy, Fred­die Bartholomew and Lionel Barrymore.

Let’s look at the IMDB sum­mary of the plot:

Har­vey Cheyne is a spoiled brat used to hav­ing his own way. When a prank goes wrong on board an ocean liner Har­vey ends up over­board and nearly drowns. For­tu­nately he’s picked up by a fish­ing boat just head­ing out for the sea­son. He tries to bribe the crew into return­ing early to col­lect a reward but none of them believe him. Stranded on the boat he must adapt to the ways of the fish­er­men and learn more about the real world.

It sounds like a lib­eral wet dream: A rich kid, one of the 1%, throw­ing his weight around and oppress­ing his school­mates, made to see how the other half lives and taken off his high horse. Give that sum­mary to a lib­eral film teacher who hasn’t seen it and they will book a show­ing in their class­room faster than you can say “racist tea party”.

Alas poor lib­er­als, it turns out the movie is chock full of con­ser­v­a­tive themes and high­lights mod­ern lib­eral foibles.

You would think the early scenes show­ing poor lit­tle rich kid Har­vey (Fred­die Bartholomew) throw­ing his weight around in school, at the school paper and play­ing on other student’s fears of job­less­ness to be full of promise for our instruc­tor, but unfor­tu­nately Har­vey seems to resem­ble a Har­vard yard occu­pod, a mem­ber of the elite, a child who has never been dis­ci­plined or told “no”. That resem­blance hits too close to home for our social­ist instruc­tor, the vision of too many cam­pus pro­test­ers come to mind.

It takes a plan gone wrong for his wid­ower father (Melvyn Dou­glas) to bluntly inform Har­vey that his sob­bing act will no longer work. Deter­mined to get more involved in his son’s life, he includes him on a trip to Europe by steamship where, as he hides over horse­play, he promptly falls over­board. If he had drowned our instruc­tor could have talked about the bad karma of wealth but instead Manuel Fidello (Spencer Tracy) a fish­er­man from the Schooner We’re Here, out of Glouces­ter Mass­a­chu­setts, fishes him out of the water and takes him aboard the ship and the Movie shifts.

Once again our instruc­tor has hope, our rich kid is among the com­mon men, the 99%.

At first the Cap­tain (Lionel Bar­ry­more) is will­ing to let Harvey’s atti­tude go and offers to make him part of the crew beside his son Dan (Mickey Rooney). He refuses to work, he starts rant­ing about send­ing the entire crew to jail unless they take him to New York, dis­rupt­ing the ship.

Remind you of any group of peo­ple protest­ing in the streets lately? Remind you of an entire gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren who will have what they want when they want it from their $600 iPhones to the lat­est video games? Our film instruc­tor is torn see­ing a mir­ror and not lik­ing the reflec­tion, and that’s where one of the piv­otal moments in the film takes place.

Cap­tain Troop, with the good of the ship and the liveli­hood of the entire crew to worry about, notes he can’t risk months of fish­ing on a boy’s yarn. When Har­vey still rants Troop finally con­cludes: “I guess there’s noth­ing left for it.” He rears back and gives Har­vey a slap that knocks him flat. Har­vey for per­haps for the first time in his life doesn’t know what to say:

You HIT me!

“Now you just sit there and think about it.”

It is here, with the estab­lish­ment of dis­ci­pline, that the movie begins to shift. Har­vey gets out of the way a bit but still refuses to work. The crew believes that Har­vey is a “Jonah” because he is a pas­sen­ger and not a crew mem­ber insist­ing Manuel do some­thing about it as he fished him out. Manuel reluc­tantly takes him under his wing and slowly through trial and error begins teach­ing him the real­i­ties of life.

Har­vey, now given direc­tion and dis­ci­pline for the first time in his life, slowly warms to Manuel as a father fig­ure and men­tor and Manuel, still miss­ing his father, warms to him. The sit­u­a­tion comes to a head as Manuel and Long Jack (John Car­ra­dine) get into an argu­ment over hand lines vs. a trowel. Manuel wagers his new razor vs half a buck that that he and Har­vey can out-​catch Long­Jack and his part­ner Nate. When Har­vey man­ages to catch a hal­ibut Manuel is proud like a father, but Har­vey appar­ently Har­vey hasn’t shaken his old schem­ing habits.

Dis­ap­pointed, Manuel brings Har­vey back to the ship and fin­ishes the day fish­ing alone. Eas­ily los­ing his bet, he brings his razor in pay­ment to Long­jack who stayed out fish­ing despite injuries, and hooks in his skin from his tan­gled trowel. He insists some­one had fouled his lines. Manuel tries to laugh it off but as Long­jack gets angrier Har­vey steps in, admit­ting what he’s done not just to Long­jack and the crew. When Jack pre­pares to go after him Manuel is ready to throw down.

From this point he begins to earn the crew’s respect and begins to learn the ways of a fish­er­man. We see the boats at the final fish­ing area rush­ing to fill their holds and sail for home. Troop seem­ingly fills his hold first, but his arch rival Walt Cush­man as we have seen a few times before, has stolen a march on him and the race for port is on. Both ships cram on all pos­si­ble sail, and after a game of chicken it looks like Troop has the race won, when tragedy strikes.

Spencer Tracy death scene

Here again, we see a dif­fer­ent set of values.

Manuel doesn’t rage against fate, he doesn’t blame Troop or the race, telling his cap­tain that he’ll beat Walt Cush­man next year. He sim­ply accepts his fate, says good­bye to Har­vey, declares that he’s going to see his father, and then drowns.

Here is a per­son, com­fort­able, well off, pam­pered and well edu­cated, a per­son told all his life how spe­cial he is and given what he wants when he wants it. As if that isn’t enough he has just man­aged one of the most mirac­u­lous feats of luck that one can achieve, being res­cued after falling over­board on an ocean liner in the dark in the mid­dle of the ocean with­out even a life jacket. What is his response to his good for­tune? Anger, indig­na­tion and demands, after all… he’s entitled.

The end is almost anti-​climatic; the ship gets home, and Harvey’s father is informed by wire that he’s alive. He flies back from Europe to find a son changed and matured from hard work and dis­ci­pline. After a memo­r­ial ser­vice to the sailors who did not sur­vive the fish­ing sea­son they head home.

Pity our poor lib­eral film teacher who can take no plea­sure in this picture.

Not from the spec­tac­u­lar visu­als of the ships and sail­ing nor of the per­for­mances from a fine cast such includ­ing Lionel Bar­ry­more in one of his last roles on two legs, child Star Fred­die Bartholomew, who man­aged a nor­mal life when all was said and done, A young Mickey Rooney, already with ten years under his belt in film and the only actor in his­tory to appear in movies made in 10 dif­fer­ent decades, John Car­ra­dine, one of the most pro­lific actors of all time, and of course, Spencer Tracy, in the role that would earn him the first of back-​to-​back Acad­emy Awards.

Even with all of this his­tory, our instruc­tor is stuck with a pic­ture advanc­ing con­ser­v­a­tive val­ues, hard work and per­sonal respon­si­bil­ity. Our instruc­tor isn’t even able to take solace in the bring­ing down of a rich kid, since the cat­a­lyst of this entire process is an act that would shock the mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties of the instruc­tor, who would have had the cap­tain brought up on charges in an instant. In fact, the very con­cept of a pre– teen like Har­vey doing such menial work has been a line of attack on a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date who dared sug­gest that those who don’t have the model of a work ethic needed such an example.

Per­haps with a dif­fer­ent elec­tion cycle it will be less painful, but the illus­tra­tion and the par­al­lels show­ing that our friends on the left just are no longer con­nected with the com­mon man.

That’s why in uni­ver­si­ties both his­tory and clas­sic film are things the left will want to keep on the shelf.

This is the 2nd of three guest posts I did for Ladd Ehlinger’s site back in late 2011.  I’m reprinting them here (With Ladd’s permission) because I think the election of Donald Trump is a significant event in the culture wars and these posts (and the follow ups that I intend to write) serve to explain what happened to our friends on the left who are still pulling out their hair over the events of November.  While Ladd’s old blog isn’t there you can find the original piece via the wayback machine.

One of the things about the passage of time is that it changes perspective.

In the 50’s the producers of the British TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood used Ring Lardner Jr., unwelcome in the US for TV capposter1work due to his communist connections (which he stated as late as 1987 he did not regret) under an assumed name to write episodes that he gleefully described as attacks on Capitalism. When viewed today, however, these stories that supposedly celebrated collectivism instead come across as a love letter to the Catholic Church and a bastion against tyranny. A message that modern liberals, normally happy to view Lardner’s work, do not appreciate.

This dynamic comes to mind when examining the 1937 pictureCaptains Courageous starring Spencer Tracy, Freddie Bartholomew and Lionel Barrymore.

Let’s look at the IMDB summary of the plot:

Harvey Cheyne is a spoiled brat used to having his own way. When a prank goes wrong on board an ocean liner Harvey ends up overboard and nearly drowns. Fortunately he’s picked up by a fishing boat just heading out for the season. He tries to bribe the crew into returning early to collect a reward but none of them believe him. Stranded on the boat he must adapt to the ways of the fishermen and learn more about the real world.

It sounds like a liberal wet dream: A rich kid, one of the 1%, throwing his weight around and oppressing his schoolmates, made to see how the other half lives and taken off his high horse. Give that summary to a liberal film teacher who hasn’t seen it and they will book a showing in their classroom faster than you can say “racist tea party”.

Alas poor liberals, it turns out the movie is chock full of conservative themes and highlights modern liberal foibles.

You would think the early scenes showing poor little rich kid Harvey (Freddie Bartholomew) throwing his weight around in school, at the school paper and playing on other student’s fears of joblessness to be full of promise for our instructor, but unfortunately Harvey seems to resemble a Harvard yard occupod, a member of the elite, a child who has never been disciplined or told “no”. That resemblance hits too close to home for our socialist instructor, the vision of too many campus protesters come to mind.

It takes a plan gone wrong for his widower father (Melvyn Douglas) to bluntly inform Harvey that his sobbing act will no longer work. Determined to get more involved in his son’s life, he includes him on a trip to Europe by steamship where, as he hides over horseplay, he promptly falls overboard. If he had drowned our instructor could have talked about the bad karma of wealth but instead Manuel Fidello (Spencer Tracy) a fisherman from the Schooner We’re Here, out of Gloucester Massachusetts, fishes him out of the water and takes him aboard the ship and the Movie shifts.

Once again our instructor has hope, our rich kid is among the common men, the 99%.

At first the Captain (Lionel Barrymore) is willing to let Harvey’s attitude go and offers to make him part of the crew beside his son Dan (Mickey Rooney). He refuses to work, he starts ranting about sending the entire crew to jail unless they take him to New York, disrupting the ship.

Remind you of any group of people protesting in the streets lately? Remind you of an entire generation of children who will have what they want when they want it from their $600 iPhones to the latest video games? Our film instructor is torn seeing a mirror and not liking the reflection, and that’s where one of the pivotal moments in the film takes place.

Captain Troop, with the good of the ship and the livelihood of the entire crew to worry about, notes he can’t risk months of fishing on a boy’s yarn. When Harvey still rants Troop finally concludes: “I guess there’s nothing left for it.” He rears back and gives Harvey a slap that knocks him flat. Harvey for perhaps for the first time in his life doesn’t know what to say:

You HIT me!

“Now you just sit there and think about it.”

It is here, with the establishment of discipline, that the movie begins to shift. Harvey gets out of the way a bit but still refuses to work. The crew believes that Harvey is a “Jonah” because he is a passenger and not a crew member insisting Manuel do something about it as he fished him out. Manuel reluctantly takes him under his wing and slowly through trial and error begins teaching him the realities of life.

Harvey, now given direction and discipline for the first time in his life, slowly warms to Manuel as a father figure and mentor and Manuel, still missing his father, warms to him. The situation comes to a head as Manuel and Long Jack (John Carradine) get into an argument over hand lines vs. a trowel. Manuel wagers his new razor vs half a buck that that he and Harvey can out-catch LongJack and his partner Nate. When Harvey manages to catch a halibut Manuel is proud like a father, but Harvey apparently Harvey hasn’t shaken his old scheming habits.

Disappointed, Manuel brings Harvey back to the ship and finishes the day fishing alone. Easily losing his bet, he brings his razor in payment to Longjack who stayed out fishing despite injuries, and hooks in his skin from his tangled trowel. He insists someone had fouled his lines. Manuel tries to laugh it off but as Longjack gets angrier Harvey steps in, admitting what he’s done not just to Longjack and the crew. When Jack prepares to go after him Manuel is ready to throw down.

From this point he begins to earn the crew’s respect and begins to learn the ways of a fisherman. We see the boats at the final fishing area rushing to fill their holds and sail for home. Troop seemingly fills his hold first, but his arch rival Walt Cushman as we have seen a few times before, has stolen a march on him and the race for port is on. Both ships cram on all possible sail, and after a game of chicken it looks like Troop has the race won, when tragedy strikes.

Spencer Tracy death scene

Here again, we see a different set of values.

Manuel doesn’t rage against fate, he doesn’t blame Troop or the race, telling his captain that he’ll beat Walt Cushman next year. He simply accepts his fate, says goodbye to Harvey, declares that he’s going to see his father, and then drowns.

Here is a person, comfortable, well off, pampered and well educated, a person told all his life how special he is and given what he wants when he wants it. As if that isn’t enough he has just managed one of the most miraculous feats of luck that one can achieve, being rescued after falling overboard on an ocean liner in the dark in the middle of the ocean without even a life jacket. What is his response to his good fortune? Anger, indignation and demands, after all… he’s entitled.

The end is almost anti-climatic; the ship gets home, and Harvey’s father is informed by wire that he’s alive. He flies back from Europe to find a son changed and matured from hard work and discipline. After a memorial service to the sailors who did not survive the fishing season they head home.

Pity our poor liberal film teacher who can take no pleasure in this picture.

Not from the spectacular visuals of the ships and sailing nor of the performances from a fine cast such including Lionel Barrymore in one of his last roles on two legs, child Star Freddie Bartholomew, who managed a normal life when all was said and done, A young Mickey Rooney, already with ten years under his belt in film and the only actor in history to appear in movies made in 10 different decades, John Carradine, one of the most prolific actors of all time, and of course, Spencer Tracy, in the role that would earn him the first of back-to-back Academy Awards.

Even with all of this history, our instructor is stuck with a picture advancing conservative values, hard work and personal responsibility. Our instructor isn’t even able to take solace in the bringing down of a rich kid, since the catalyst of this entire process is an act that would shock the modern sensibilities of the instructor, who would have had the captain brought up on charges in an instant. In fact, the very concept of a pre- teen like Harvey doing such menial work has been a line of attack on a presidential candidate who dared suggest that those who don’t have the model of a work ethic needed such an example.

Perhaps with a different election cycle it will be less painful, but the illustration and the parallels showing that our friends on the left just are no longer connected with the common man.

That’s why in universities both history and classic film are things the left will want to keep on the shelf.