It’s amazing that “Captains Courageous” (MGM, 1937) should be such a brilliantly effective picture when you consider how bad Spencer Tracy’s performance is. As Manuel, the simple, good-hearted Portuguese fisherman, Tracy seems to be impersonating Chico Marx, though with his hair in corkscrew curls, he looks like Harpo. (If he’d worn a greasepaint moustache, he could have been all three Marx Brothers simultaneously.) He won an Oscar for his performance. It’s hard to account for this win, except that It wasn’t a strong year for leading men. Of the nominees, Charles Boyer (as Napoleon in “Conquest”) would have been my choice, but the picture was an expensive dud. Fredric March wasn’t terribly good in “A Star Is Born”; Robert Montgomery was bad in “Night Must Fall.” And Paul Muni was at his poisonous worst in “The Life of Emile Zola.” Muni may be the only actor who was even more overrated in his day than Tracy, but at least nobody appears to remember him or take his ham performances seriously anymore. Only Tracy continues to be considered a great actor, despite everything. I just shake my head and shrug. Anyhow, Tracy won, and he’s the worst thing in the otherwise estimable picture.
Happily, there are many wonderful performances in “Captains Courageous” — enough of them to mitigate the crumminess of Tracy’s I-no-speaka-da-Eenglees vaudeville turn — more than enough to make the picture well worth seeing. At the top of the list (and most surprisingly) is Freddie Bartholomew, who is superb. In every other picture I’ve seen him in, his goody-goody act gives me the pip. But in this one, he’s beyond reproach. I expect the director, Victor Fleming, had a lot to do with this. Before Harvey Cheyne (Bartholomew), falls overboard from an ocean liner and is subsequently reformed by three-months’ hard labor aboard the small fishing boat that rescued him, Fleming allows no whiff of the charming scapegrace about Harvey: instead, he is a dishonorable, thorough-going swine — and remains so even after his rescue. Then, just shy of thirty-five minutes into the picture, Captain Disko (Lionel Barrymore) decides he’s heard enough and slaps the little bastard so hard, it knocks him down — decks him, in fact. “You hit me!” Harvey says, suddenly pathetic and vulnerable. “Now you just set and think about that for a while,” replies the captain. Harvey’s formal education officially begins at that moment. It’s the best argument I’ve ever seen for corporal punishment. Audiences in 1937 must have cheered when they saw it; I bet they’d still cheer today.
In the scenes that follow, what a pleasure to see Harvey begin to admire, then to love, then to hero-worship Manuel . . . ! It’s done in such carefully plotted, tentative stages, and the evolution of Harvey’s relationship with this sea-faring father figure is so beautifully acted (by Bartholomew, if not by Tracy) that, even though you know you’re being had — the boy already has a father and will not be allowed to have two, so something extremely unpleasant will have to happen — you don’t feel manipulated by any of it. Bartholomew is so persuasive as Harvey that he makes Spencer Tracy’s dreadful performance appear to have its own weird logic . . . after all, if this shrewd little kid buys the mush-mouthed organ grinder act, who am I to gainsay it? By the end, as you will see, the picture is remarkably touching. “Captains Courageous” doesn’t jerk the tears; it conjures them.
The crew aboard the little fishing boat (named the We’re Here) is played by a group of seasoned pros, all of whom bring a lot of eccentric personality and energy to their roles. Barrymore is better than usual — he’s a ham, all right, but so is Captain Disko — and he underplays the emotional scenes (in one scene near the end, he gives the best performance of his movie career). John Carradine is tremendous as the dour pessimist, Long Jack, who believes Harvey to be a Jonah and wants him thrown off the boat. Carradine doesn’t sweeten him up: even after he eases up a bit, he’s still believably a hard fisherman, full of suspicions and superstitions and always expecting the worst of everybody and everything. A coming-of-age story like this is bound to be larded with sentimentality — Carradine and the rest of the cast (with the exception of Spencer Tracy) play against the sentiment; Fleming keeps the action moving along smartly: many life lessons are learned aboard the We’re Here, but Fleming never lingers over them. Mickey Rooney is good and admirably restrained in a small role. For once, he doesn’t chew the scenery. God only knows how Victor Fleming managed to keep him under control. As Harvey’s lonely business tycoon father, Melvyn Douglas is also excellent: but then, he always is.
In Praise of Melvyn Douglas
Melvyn Douglas was the man who made Garbo laugh. What most people remember about “Ninotchka” is that it was Greta Garbo’s first comedy; they probably also remember that she plays a humorless Commie who comes to Paris on official business and a little while later begins to laugh for the first time in her life. Many people remember that she ends up wearing a hat that looks as if the milliner had taken a large, soggy Frito and wound it round a dented traffic cone on an upward diagonal. (Adrian designed it, presumably as an homage to Dr Seuss.) Garbo got the publicity, the headlines and the legend; but it took Melvyn Douglas — ebullient, feckless, persistent Melvyn Douglas — to knock her seriousness into a cocked hat and make her roar with laughter.
His performance in “Ninotchka” has always been cast deep in the shadow of Garbo’s million-watt glamour, but in this picture, he’s a far more interesting screen presence than she is. Garbo was rarely as good as she is in “Ninotchka,” but that is largely because so much of the comedy demands only that she be immobile, unapproachable, humorless — the Frosty Deity was a role she knew something about. The picture lampoons her Ice Queen persona; by doing nothing, Garbo becomes witty by default. Douglas does nearly all of the heavy lifting in their scenes together: after each failed attempt to warm her up, he must try a new tack; at the same time, he must not lose our sympathy, exhaust our patience, or do anything to make us turn against him. He must never seem less than charming and appealing. And to make things more difficult, if you judge Count Leon D’Algou by his actions, he is worse than a cad: he is a conniving gigolo without honor; he’s a titled parasite. And yet, we’re supposed to root for him. With Melvyn Douglas in the part, we do.
In “A Woman’s Face,” he miraculously spoke lines of unspeakable badness without betraying contempt or embarrassment for having to breathe life into such excruciating nonsense. In that one, he played a plastic surgeon who repaired, with spectacular results, Joan Crawford’s face, hideously ravaged in childhood by a bottle of acid her father shied at her (perhaps the gentleman was a connoisseur of good acting?). The woman’s disfigurement has led her to shun good companions and to travel down the crookedest paths, to haunt the meanest resorts, keep company with the lowest scum, pursue the worst vices. (The seamy underworld gets the standard Metro treatment: it is depicted as a weird fairyland of Germanic kitsch. The lowest criminal haunt is a hunting lodge/clip joint set in a sylvan glade deep in the heart of Metro’s Hansel and Gretel soundstage forest; the backdrops appear to be from “The Wizard of Oz.”) When Douglas first encounters Crawford, she’s a dangerous criminal (she manages a clip joint where they water the drinks and overcharge the drunks): as a surgeon, he feels ethically obliged to help her; as a citizen, he is decidedly ambivalent about curing such an evil ham.
In “Hud,” he played an aged Texas rancher whose cattle have contracted hoof and mouth disease and must be destroyed. The old man insists on killing his prize longhorns himself, an almost unbearable sorrow for him. Before he raises his rifle, he says, “Lord, but I have chased them longhorns many a mile. I don’t even know if I can kill ’em . . . But . . . I guess I can.” Douglas’ reading of the line doesn’t ignore or avoid its belles-lettres-in-chaps quality, nor does he stress its poetry; he speaks the words simply and sadly, and makes the phrasing sound utterly natural but richer in meaning; it’s plain, but more eloquent, more resonant than everyday speech. Characteristically, he does not allow a single drop of sentimentality to bedew the line’s bitter pragmatism. You hear the echoes of the man’s entire life when Melvyn Douglas speaks those words.
In another beautiful sequence, he attends the picture show with his grandson, played by Brandon De Wilde. When they enter the little auditorium, the old man is sick at heart. He’s burdened with the knowledge that the only world he ever gave a damn about, and the only way of life he knows and trusts, have already vanished; the lab results haven’t come back yet, but he has a sinking feeling that his cattle will have to be destroyed. He complains that he’s “wore out,” but it’s more serious than that: he’s ill and won’t get better; what he’s got is going to kill him. When they sit down, the old man looks at all the young people around him and wonders aloud how young folks can be so foolish as to waste sixty-five cents to come here to “get their knees pinched,” when a hayloft is free. When the first featurette begins, it’s a follow-the-bouncing-ball sing-along of “Clementine.” It turns out that the leathery old cattleman loves to sing. He sings loudly, lustily and with a lofty indifference to accurate intonation. On each repeat of the chorus, he sings louder and more enthusiastically — he keeps getting ahead of the beat, and drowning out all the other people in attendance. You’d expect his sensitive, painfully shy grandson to be in agonies of embarrassment at his grandfather’s stupendous lack of inhibition; but Douglas’ raucous enjoyment is unstoppable, irresistible, triumphant; it seems to fill the boy with admiration: the old-timer puts a higher value on the pleasure he gets from singing than on making a favorable impression on a pack of foolish youngsters who don’t have his magnificent zest for life or his lung power. De Wilde throws in with the old man, and sings for all he’s worth. He’s young and has his whole life ahead of him, but it’s the dying old man who knows how to have a good time. Douglas permits no sentimentality in this sequence, either; if it were sentimental, it would be unbearable. It’s a very brief sequence, but Douglas fills it with radiant life. In its own small way, the scene is thrilling. Whenever I look at this scene, I think — Yes: this is an actor who really knew his business. He won his first Oscar for this performance.
Many years later, when he was 79 years old, he was nominated for his great performance in “Being There.” That same year, Justin Henry, who played the little boy in “Kramer vs. Kramer” was nominated in the same category. Douglas remarked, “The whole thing is absurd, my competing with an eight year old child.” Happily, Douglas won his second Oscar for his performance, and the absurdity was relegated to a footnote in Oscar history.
In “Captains Courageous,” he plays a relatively small role for a star of his magnitude; moreover, there are more hams in the picture than one could hope to find in a Smithfield slaughterhouse. Douglas doesn’t pull any cheesy tricks to draw attention to himself during the brief minutes he’s onscreen: instead, he acts the part with conviction and immediacy — in his performance, we see Mr Cheyne’s very carefully concealed inner life thrown into a riot of doubts and confusion; we see him come to understand that all the certainties on which he based his conduct and set his priorities were not certainties at all, but rather, miscalculations that have brought his life to grief. But Douglas doesn’t appear to act any of this: he doesn’t present them to us with a series of carefully arranged hesitations, sighs, arched eyebrows, sweetly rueful smiles or any of the thousands of other sentimental acting tricks a lesser actor would put to use. He doesn’t even delude himself that Mr Cheyne’s crisis of the soul, as painful as it is, is the point of the story. He knows he’s of secondary — even tertiary — importance to the story: he knows he’s not the star of this coming-of-age picture: Freddie Bartholomew is. Yet Mr Cheyne’s agonies are acute; they’re also terribly interesting and are an essential element to the story, so just hitting his marks, finding his light and being a good feed for the child star are not an option. It’s quite an acting challenge: Mr Cheyne must go through his terrible ordeal, yet he must do so without taking the focus of the picture off the kid. How does Douglas solve it? As I mentioned, he doesn’t act the crisis; he doesn’t show us what the man is going through: instead, he does precisely what Mr Cheyne would do: he approaches his problem systematically. Without losing any of his dignity, he quietly seeks advice and information from the captain who has turned his son into a man. He puts aside all questions of class and education — Mr Cheyne is not a snob — and as he talks to the old captain, Douglas lets us understand something of Mr Cheyne’s awakening, which we learn by reading the sorrows of his changing face. It’s an extraordinary performance, but it’s done with such finesse and understatement that very few ever realize the amount of skill, discretion and exquisite taste that went into its creation.
Nowadays, Melvyn Douglas seems to be considerably less familiar to audiences than Bogart, Cagney, Cooper, Gable, Grant, Tracy and some others. In my view, if he’s less familiar to modern audiences, it’s because he exists in a different category from all the other famous leading men. He was unquestionably an A-List Leading Man for many years — he costarred with the likes of Greta Garbo, Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Deanna Durbin, Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Peter Sellers and virtually every other name-above-the-title star in Hollywood. As he aged, he became a superb character actor, and often those character parts were also leading roles. He continued to work in prestige pictures until the end of his long life. His career lasted fifty years, and for most of them, he was a major star. His career endured and carried on through all the post-Studio Era upheavals better than any of his contemporaries (including the supremely gifted Bette Davis, who made very few worthwhile pictures after 1950: not her fault, but there it is), partly because he aged well, like an excellent Burgundy, but mostly because (like Davis) he was always an actor first and a movie star second. And yet, for all his longevity and famous roles, he’s not always remembered by the sort of people who draw up numbered lists of the most popular/influential/important/famous Hollywood stars. Even at the peak of his popularity, I have the sense that his skill was such that audiences had come to expect him to give a fine performance, so that his excellence eventually became something of a foregone conclusion: only a bad performance would have attracted critical attention, and that’s the one kind of performance Melvyn Douglas didn’t give.
Critics are constantly saying that Cary Grant’s special gift was his ability to make everything look so easy, as if he weren’t acting at all. I think Cary Grant acts far too much — at his best, he pleases and amuses me, but I just about never believe a word he says: he’s too busy pulling faces and doing bits. But then there’s Melvyn Douglas, who nearly always makes you forget he’s acting. He was a very big star and had a commanding presence, but he wasn’t a show-off. All of his best qualities are the opposite of showy histrionics: he doesn’t stammer like Jimmy Stewart, arch his eyebrows like Joan Crawford, gulp like Gary Cooper, squinch up the sides of his mouth like Clark Gable, pull faces like Cary Grant, insert “naturalistic” pauses like Spencer Tracy, or rely on any other mannerisms to remind us that we’re watching Melvyn Douglas give a Great Acting Performance: his only trick is to beguile us into believing he is the character he’s playing. There’s the effortless ease of his delivery, which is almost too smoothly eloquent and well-spoken to be credible, yet is nevertheless completely natural; there’s his technical skill, which is so masterful that it’s nearly always invisible. Perhaps most amazing is his ability to play every style, genre, historical period with equal success (one wouldn’t question his presence at the trial of Socrates for a second, but imagine Gable, Cooper, Tracy or God forbid, Duke Wayne in that setting!). If he doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves, it’s because he’s too real, too perfectly believable, to call attention to his virtuosity. It is only when you look at the list of his credits that he becomes an astonishment. As an actor, I rank him in the same category as Claude Rains and Walter Huston, which is to say, I’m prepared to see him act in the worst rubbish just to watch how his superb aplomb gets him through the wretched stuff without mussing his hair or unsharpening the perfect crease in his trousers. You only have to see him come through a rotten picture like “A Woman’s Face” with his dignity intact to know what I’m talking about.
Of all the first-rate all-round leading men of the Studio Era, Melvyn Douglas gets my vote for finest and most versatile. He played debonair heroes, suave bounders, champagne-swilling boulevardiers, sober surgeons, likeable cads, tough-minded businessmen, amused husbands, aggrieved fathers, put-upon architects, resilient dupes, learned judges, grizzled seamen, sozzled swells, steely generals, shifty plutocrats, noble ranchers, incorruptible authoritarians, and even average fellows (his average fellows were always, by virtue of the man himself, well above average, though he was a fine enough actor to make them seem believably “average”: he was the average man’s dream of himself). Every one of these parts he played with authority, distinction, style, grace, wit and above all finesse. Bravo, Melvyn Douglas!