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Literature / Captains Courageous

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Should have used him for bait.

Captains Courageous is a novel by Rudyard Kipling. It was first published in book form in 1897, having been serialized in McClure's magazine the previous year.

Harvey Cheyne, the spoiled teenage son of rich American parents, is washed overboard during a transatlantic voyage. He is picked up by a deep sea fishing vessel, whose captain refuses to cut short the ship's fishing run and makes Harvey work his passage.

The novel was adapted for the screen in 1937. The film was directed by Victor Fleming, and starred Freddie Bartholomew (the era's biggest child star, non-Shirley Temple division) as Harvey, supported by an All-Star Cast that included Melvyn Douglas, Lionel Barrymore, John Carradine, a young Mickey Rooney just as he was breaking out as a star, and Spencer Tracy as Manuel, the Portuguese fisherman who becomes Harvey's mentor and father figure. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, with Tracy taking home his first Best Actor statue (he won another one the next year for Boys Town).

A Made-for-TV Movie adaptation aired on ABC in 1977, starring Jonathan Kahn as Harvey and Ricardo Montalbán as Manuel, while another TV adaptation aired on The Family Channel (now Freeform) in 1996, starring Kenny Vadas as Harvey and Robert Urich as Capt. Troop.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: The film adds a prologue at the school to show how much of a manipulative brat Harvey is.
  • Alliterative Title: C'aptains Courageous
  • Brownface: A very WASP-y Spencer Tracy appears to be wearing tanning lotion or something in order to play a Portuguese fisherman. Apparently Tracy never felt he was believeable in the part.
  • The Cabin Boy: Harvey. Although the boat already has a boy aboard to handle the drudgery duties, and despite Harvey's thorny pomposity, the fishermen allow Harvey to serve aboard as apprentice cabin boy. Life at sea for months results in a slow but steady Character Development, to the point where Harvey becomes the Captain's accountant.
  • Cassandra Truth: When rescued, Harvey immediately tells Disko and his crew that he's a millionaire's son, but no one believes him until his father finally arrives at the end.
  • Coming of Age Story: When Harvey falls off the transatlantic steamer, he's a spoiled boy. When he steps off the fishing vessel at the end of the novel, he's a young man who is trusted to handling the ship's accounts with the later sale of the catch.
  • Death by Adaptation:
    • Manuel in the 1937 film.
    • Dan in the 1996 TV version.
  • Father Neptune: Disko Troop, the captain of the fishing vessel.
  • Foreshadowing: Manuel's remarks about how drowning at sea is a good way for a sailor to go.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Long Jack who's very dubious about the "Jonah" and is furious with Harvey over the sabotage of his lines. However he does come to respect Harvey's grit and parts on good terms with him, giving him Manuel's razor in the film.
  • Manly Men Can Hunt: 19th-century deep sea fishing is manly enough to qualify.
  • Missing Mom: In the 1937 movie, Harvey's mom is dead. Not true of the Kipling novel.
  • My Girl Back Home: Some of the fishermen have a Girl Back Home. There is a poignant scene in which the Gloucester fishing families gather at a church to listen to the yearly casualty report and several newly widowed women burst out in tears.
  • Not-So-Safe Harbor: Gloucester, the home port of the fishing vessel.
  • Parents as People: Harvey's father loves his son, but is so wrapped up in his businesses that he never really spends any time with him. He tries to rectify this once he realizes how bad Harvey's behavior is.
    • His mother has more time for him, but she defaults to displaying affection with money, making Harvey a Spoiled Brat of the first water.
  • Railroad Baron: Harvey's father. He falls toward the sympathetic end of the range of depictions.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Disko Troop is a genial and fair captain to his men and patient with Harvey to a point, explaining why he can't run back to port in the middle of fishing season.
  • The Rival: The Jennie Cushman, another ship that is the rival to Capt. Troop's We're Here. Much competition and trash-talking is had.
  • Setting Update: The movie is set in 1937.
  • Spoiled Brat: Harvey, to begin with. He's pretty awful.
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men: The depiction of the fishing vessel has elements of this, though it's not a fighting ship.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: In the film, after getting punched in the face by another boy, Harvey smears ink all over his clothes and fakes a limp to wins his father's sympathy.
  • Wacky Americans Have Wacky Names: Diskobolus Troop, anyone?