Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS – Franz Waxman



Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1936 MGM Studios decided to adapt the Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 coming of age novel Captains Courageous to the big screen. They purchased the screen rights, and management of the project was assigned to producer Louis D. Lighton who was provided a budget of $1.65 million. Screenwriters John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly and Dale Van Every were hired to adapt the novel, and Victor Fleming was tasked with directing. For casting, of prime importance was finding the right boy to play the Harvey Cheyne role. The creative team hired Freddie Batholomew, an English-American actor who many regards as one of the greatest child actors in cinematic history. Joining him would be Spencer Tracy as Manuel Fidello, Lionel Barrymore as Captain Disko Troop, Melvyn Douglas as Frank Burton Cheyne, and Mickey Rooney as Dan Troop.

The story is set in Gloucester, Massachusetts, during the wanning years of the 19th century. Harvey Cheyne is the spoiled and insufferable son of Frank Burton Cheyne who is an enormously wealthy businessman. After being suspended for bad behavior at school, Harvey joins his father on a business trip to Europe. Harvey accidentally falls overboard and is saved by a Portuguese fisherman Manuel who takes him aboard the fishing schooner “We’re Here”. Captain Disko Troop refuses to immediately take him back as he would lose time and money. He doe however promise to take him back after three months when the ship’s hold is full of fish. Harvey is recalcitrant but eventually accepts his fate forging a bond with Manuel who becomes a surrogate father. Harvey matures, learns the value of hard work and seamanship, and becomes a well-trained crew member. Tragedy strikes on day when Manuel is mortally wounded and makes a dying request to the captain to be let go. Harvey cries and stays with Manuel until the last moment when the rigging is cut by Captain Troop and Manuel sinks below the waves. Harvey returns home a changed boy and through Manuel’s death he and his father at last bond as father and son. The film was a commercial success, earning a profit of $1.48 million. Critics offered universal praise for the film’s production, story-telling and performances. It secured four Academy Award nominations including; Best Picture, Best Film Editing, Best Screenplay, winning one award for Best Actor.

Victor Fleming’s usual composer Herbert Stothart was not available to score the film, so Franz Waxman, who had recently joined MGM in 1936 and acquainted himself well, was given the assignment. Waxman understood that the story presented a coming-of-age story for Harvey, set against a backdrop of a commercial fishing schooner fishing in the north Atlantic. A nautical soundscape with action sequences, would be juxtaposed by more intimate music, which spoke to Harvey’s bonding with Manuel, the trauma of Manuel’s death, and Harvey’s reconciliation with his father. To bring authenticity to his soundscape, Waxman interpolated a number of traditional seaman songs as well as utilizing an ancient string instrument, a pre-cursor to the fiddle, called a hurdy gurdy.

For his soundscape, Waxman supports with three primary themes and a motif. The Adventure Theme offers fanfare, which resounds on horns dramatico, as four bold declarations of major modal chords. Waxman employs the fanfare to propel the film’s narrative and create feelings of adventure. The Main Theme is interpolated from the traditional Portuguese fishermen’s song “Don’t Cry For Me Little Fish” AKA “Manuel’s Song and “The One I Love Best” and serves as Manuel’s Theme, a unifying thread for the film’s tapestry. It is both endearing and heartwarming, offering a long-lined, lush, and dance-like construct borne by strings. The theme is malleable and Waxman renders it in a multiplicity for expressions based on the scene dynamics. The Sea Ditty Theme is derived from the sea shanty song “Oh What A Terrible Man”, and offers a spritely exposition by energetic strings and woodwinds. It is employed to support activity by the crew, though it assumes a sardonic iteration in the “Manuel Overboard” cue. The Danger Motif offers repeating, stepped ascending phrases by tremolo strings, which sow danger and unease. The Motif is often joined with dire iterations of the Adventure Theme. Cues coded (*) identify music that is not found on the album.

“Main Title” offers a wonderful score highlight, where Waxman masterfully sets the tone of the film. It opens with Waxman’s heraldic fanfare reale for the MGM Studio logo. Trilling strings introduce the opening credits, which display against wooden planks as waves crash against it. At 0:18 the trilling violins are joined by the Adventure Fanfare, which resounds on horns dramatico replete with timpani strikes, which informs us that an adventure awaits. At 0:55 we flow into the Main Theme carried by sumptuous strings draped with harp glissandi. We flow into the film proper and close on xylophone adornment as we see the estate cook preparing three formal breakfast trays. After the main title, the early portion of the film (up to the 42:00-minute mark) is dialogue driven and unscored. I provide scene descriptions so you may better understand the score when it joins. “Harvey” reveals Harvey, whose mother has died, growing up in the lap of luxury, indulged by his father. He is spoiled and insufferable to his friends, school mates, as well as the butler and maids. In school he bullies his schoolmates with threats alluding to his father’s power, as well as using bribes and ends up being expelled for one term. His father decides to commit to personal bonding time with Harvey to correct his life course and takes him on a business trip to Europe. They set sail for London on a cruise ship and enter a massive and dense fog bank off the Grand Banks. Harvey recruits some friends, treats them to chocolate sodas to impress them, but gets sick after eating six. He goes to the deck to vomit, slips, and falls overboard.

“Manuel Saves Harvey” reveals Manuel, who is out in a row boat, discovering Harvey, pulling him to safety, and taking him aboard the schooner “We’re Here”. After sleeping he wakes and insists on seeing the captain. “Harvey and the Captain” reveals an imperious Harvey demanding that he be taken to Europe or New York, only to be informed that they will return to Gloucester in about three months after their hold are full of fish. Harvey’s attempt to impress with his father’s wealth fails and he is sent below with Captain Troop’s son Dan. Back on deck he refuses to work and threatens to have them all jailed for kidnapping when they return. The captain has had enough, and slaps him to the ground, which stuns the boy. Yet Harvey still refuses to work, to which the captain replies, “No work, no food”. He then assigns Manuel as his mentor to teach him seamanship and fishing. Harvey remains defiant and tries to release a dory, striking Manuel with an oar when he interferes. Manuel finally helps Harvey get some dinner by forcing him to throw a single fish head into the sea, and then declaring to the captain that the boy had finished his work.

The score returns for “In The Night” where ambient horns and harp arpeggios support the silhouette of the schooner at nightfall. At 0:19 we segue into “The One I Love Best” where Harvey joins Manuel on the deck as he plays his Hurdy Gurdy and sings the song Don’t Cry For Me Little Fish” supported warmly by folksy strings. Tension remains between the two, but we discern a subtle warming in Harvey to Manuel’s endearing folksy charm. “Here Comes Cushman” reveals the competitor schooner Cushman joining them, carried by surging strings of confidence from which arises a proud exposition of the Adventure Theme. Captains Troop and Cushman engage in some pithy banter as they again contest for the same fishing ground. At 0:37 we segue into the “We’re Here’s” deck crew singing the sea ditty “Oh What A Terrible Man” as they chop up bait fish. In “Harvey Goes Fishing” Harvey and Manuel bond and a nascent friendship takes form. Manuel rewards Harvey by taking him out in his dory to fish. To their amazement, Harvey on his third try pulls in a huge halibut, but things go south when long Jack in another dory is injured and Harvey admits that he tied knots in his net to ensure they win. Manuel is disappointed and punishes Harvey by throwing his halibut back into the sea and taking him back to the schooner. “Back On The Boat” reveals Manuel taking Harvey back to the schooner, and then returning to fish. Waxman supports with an aching Main Theme borne by strings affanato, which reflect both of their disappointment.

“Bad Boy” supports the aftermath of Harvey revealing to Long Jack and the crew that he, not Manuel fouled the net. Although Harvey apologizes, Manuel steps in to protect him from a beating by the enraged Long Jack. Harvey again apologizes to Manuel below deck and Waxman supports with plaintive woodwinds, which create a dirge-like ambiance. At 0:22 the music warms as Manuel comforts and reassures him with a paternalistic love. A meandering flute tenero line weaves to and from to support the intimate moment. The next two cues offer inspiring score highlights, which showcases extraordinary thematic interplay. “After The Song” opens with a quote of the Main Theme, which ushers in a proud and exciting declaration of the Adventure Theme. We see the “We’re Here” sailing as a map displays their last fishing stop – The Grand Banks. At 0:19 we flow into the lush string borne Main Theme as we see the “We’re Here” joined by many other schooners and dozens of dories. At 0:39 we segue into “Fishing Montage” supported by the Adventure Theme emoted by French horns languido and trilling strings as Manuel points out to Harvey the names of each schooner and their home port. At 1:20 we segue into a comic, if not frenetic rendering of the Sea Ditty Theme” as Captain Troop again makes light of Captain Cushman and his fishing efforts, vowing that he will not allow him to beat him back to Gloucester. At 1:46 a determined Adventure Theme joins as Captain Troop orders the launch of the dories. At 2:19 horns bravura declares the “Sea Ditty Theme, which launches at 2:39 a kinetic accelerando, which energizes an exciting montage of scenes of the crew catching a bountiful harvest of cod. Waxman demonstrates mastery of his craft in propelling the montage using a kinetic string ostinato to ground the music, joined with interplay of the Main, Sea Ditty and Adventure Themes. The confluence of music and film imagery is outstanding!

“We Are Full” reveals Captain Troop signaling his dories to return to the ship as the hold is full. As is tradition, Captain Troop picks up letters from the other boats to take home as his will be the first to set sail. Music joins with “Cushman Sailing” as Captain Troop is alerted that the Cushman has already set sail. A crescendo atop tremolo strings irato swells and speak to Troop’s consternation as he orders his dory back to the “We’re Here”. At 0:18 we segue into “Anchor Up” atop multiple resounding declarations of the Adventure Fanfare as Captain Troop orders them to pull anchor and prepare to get on the way. A kinetic Sea Ditty Theme joins with heavy declarations of the Adventure Theme to propel the crew’s actions to get the schooner ready to sail. An upsurge at 1:10 upon the Adventure Theme intensifies the action. A kinetic Sea Ditty Theme joins and supports the men cranking up the anchor, and unfurling the sails as the ship prepares to launch. At 2:38 we segue atop refulgent strings into “Sailing Along”, a glorious score highlight as we see the “We’re Here” sailing home in hot pursuit of the Cushman. Waxman carries her cutting through the waves with a magnificent rendering of the Main Theme. At 3:22 undulating racing strings and staccato horns support the “We’ve Here” almost keeled over as Captain Troop pushes her hard in an effort to overtake the Cushman. At 3:48 tension releases on a diminuendo as Captain Troop is forced to ease up on the helm or capsize. We close on a dispirited Adventure Theme, which ends with a diminuendo of uncertainty as nightfall arrives and the Cushman maintains her lead.

“Harvey’s Confession” reveals his tearful confession to Manuel of wanting to sign-up as a crewman for the next voyage, to become the best fisherman ever, and that he wants to be with him, as we see he finally has a caring father figure in his life. For some reason, this crucial and intimate scene was unscored. The following cue title is a misnomer as Manuel does not fall overboard during the scene this cue supports. The cue title “The We’re Here Takes the Lead” would be a better descriptor. In “Manuel Overboard” offers another score highlight as Waxman provides energetic thematic interplay. Repeating phrases of the Danger Motif by surging strings of alarm rise up and join with the dramatic fanfare of the Adventure Theme, and Sea Ditty Theme, as Captain Troop at last makes his move to pass the Cushman. At 1:12 horns grave resound with danger joined by the Sea Ditty Theme as Captain Cushman turns his schooner around and heads directly towards the “We’re Here”. The schooners are now on a collision course with each captain firm in their resolve to not bear off. Waxman builds a mounting tension on a crescendo of danger as the two schooners close. We climax at 2:14 as Captain Cushman blinks first and orders hard to starboard to avoid a head-on collision. The Adventure Fanfare resounds as an anthem of victory as the “We’re Here” crew celebrates. At 2:43 the crew sings a mocking rendering of the Sea Ditty Theme to tweak Captain Cushman’s pride. Comic interludes support Harvey’s taking the vocal lead.

“Manuel Drowns” offers a score highlight where Waxman masterfully supports the film’s fateful scene with dynamic thematic interplay. Repeating phrases of the Danger Motif by the surging strings of alarm rise up with dire contrapuntal declarations of the Adventure Theme. A tragic statement of the Main Theme at 0:23 joins as we see the “We’re Here” being buffeted by rough seas and high winds. For safety, Captain Troop sends Manuel and another man aloft up the aft mast at 0:52 to take down the top sail as the mast is being subjected to great strain by the high winds. A tremolo strings diminuendo interlude of tension with the dire horns of the Adventure Theme supports their climb. At 1:22 a stinger supports a rope fraying, held now by a tenuous single rope strand. The Danger Motif and dire Adventure Theme horns continue to sow a palpable tension. At 1:46 another stinger reveals mast security brackets beginning to fail. At 1:56 an urgent crescendo of danger begins to swell, cresting at 2:15 as the mast shatters and tumbles down, ensnaring Manuel in its ropes as he falls to his doom. A diminuendo tremolo of uncertainty joins as the crew races to Manuel to save him. At 2:38 a molto tragico statement of the Main Theme reveals Manuel signaling the captain that he cannot extricate himself.

“Manuel’s Death” reveals Manuel relaying to the cook that he is good as dead, that the bottom of his body has been severed, and that he does not want Harvey to know. Yet a desperate Harvey crawls out to Manuel on the mast to be with him. Captain Troop orders an axe to cut loose that mast, as which each passing moment the ropes are sawing into Manuel’s abdomen causing horrific pain. As Captain Troop begin axing the last mast rope Manuel comforts the boy saying he will be joining his father in his dory. As Harvey sobs, Manuel tells him to smile and remember their good times together. Manuel’s final words are that he will be watching him, and that he will grow up to be the best fisherman ever. Music enters powerfully with a molto tragico statement of the Main Theme as Captain Troop cuts the rope and the mast sinks below the waves taking Manuel with it. Harvey desperately reaches into the water to reach him to no avails as an eerie misterioso of death takes Manuel downwards into the ocean’s watery depths. Harvey sobs, overcome and devastated with the loss of his beloved Manuel, supported by a woodwind sustain of loss. At 0:34 we segue into “Back In Gloucester” a score highlight, and are supported by a solemn rendering of the Adventure Theme as Harvey prepares to resume his old life. The crew departs and Long Jack gives Harvey a parting gift, a shave kit to support his passage into manhood. The theme lightens as Harvey talks with Dan and inquires about the disposition of Manuel’s belongings. At 1:09 we flow into a hopeful rendering of the Main Theme as Dan suggests Harvey talk to his dad below. At 1:24 we flow into a tender and heartfelt flute carried fugal rendering of the Sea Ditty Theme. The melody is transfered to strings and woodwinds at 1:32 as Harvey receives his $3 pay, and Captain Troop’s blessing to take Manuel’s Hurdy Gurdy. He then asks to sign up for the next voyage, with the theme growing with sentimentality as Captain Troop counsels that it may be best for him to reunite and spend time with his father, who he is sure misses him. We close on a wistful rendering of the Main Theme as Harvey’s father arrives and calls out for him.

“Harvey’s Father” offers a score highlight with one of the score’s most beautiful rendering of the Main Theme. Waxman graces us with a tender and wistful rendering of the Main Theme full of sentimentality and the as Harvey is reunited with his father. At 2:06 a wistful statement of the Sea Ditty Theme joins. We close with surging strings appassionato as Harvey struggles to adjust to Manuel’s loss and his father tries to reach out and comfort him. The following two cues were dialed out of the film. In each case, I felt that Waxman’s music enhanced the film’s narrative, and achieved a sublime confluence. “In The Church” reveals Harvey lighting candles of remembrance to Manuel’s memory. Waxman supports the heartfelt scene with an achingly beautiful rendering of the Main Theme. At 1:08 Harvey makes a heartfelt plea to God to allow room in Manuel’s father’s dory for him to join when he dies as his father looks on from the back of the church. Waxman drapes the theme with religioso auras as wordless angelic women’s choir joins with ethereal harp adornment. “In The Dory” was dialed out of the film and offers a score highlight. Harvey’s father finds him sobbing in a dory, grieving the loss of his beloved Manuel. Waxman supports the pathos with an elegiac rendering of the Adventure Theme full of heartache as an inconsolable Harvey refuses repeated efforts by his father to comfort him, instead asking to be left alone, much to his father’s distress.

“Rock Of Ages” reveals a film – album variance. In the film the Christian hymn “Rock of Ages (1775) by Augustus Toplady is sung by mixed choir and supported by organ, with a solemn orchestral rendering reprising the hymn without choir during the memorial service. On the album only the solemn orchestra rendering is offered. We open with a commemorative flower wreath displayed under the statue of the Lost Mariner, which reads; “They That Go Down To The Sea In Ships 1623 – 1923”. Afterwards a minister gives a eulogy for the men who lost their lives during the last fishing season. When Manuel Fidello’s name is called, first Captain Troop, then Harvey, and finally Harvey’s father all toss commemorative wreaths into the waters, with Harvey’s and his father’s joined together, which informs us that father and son have at last bonded. Harvey is moved, reaches out and grasps his father’s hand, with his father hugging him with loving affection. At 1:18 we segue into “End Title” full of happiness atop a spritely rendering of the Sea Ditty Theme as we see a car towing Manuel’s dory, with a happy and animated Harvey telling sea stories to his father in the car’s back seat. We conclude the film with a grand statement of the Adventure Theme as “The End” displays over the statue of the Lost Mariner. “Exit Music” was composed by Waxman to support the audience’s exit from the theater. It offers a supremely moving, song-like orchestral rendering of the Main Theme, for its finest exposition of the album.

I would like to thank Douglass Fake and Intrada for this wonderful four CD box set release of the “Franz Waxman Collection,” which pairs the score for Captains Courageous with other Waxman scores including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939), A Christmas Carol (1938), Woman of the Year (1942), Count Your Blessings (1959), Love on the Run (1936), Fury (1936), Suspicion (1941), The Devil-Doll (1936), and King of the Roaring 20’s – The Story of Arnold Rothstein (1961). The editing and mastering by Douglass Fake, and DDP mastering by Joe Tarantino of the original 78 rpm monaural acetate reference discs was well done and the audio quality is quite good, although it does not achieve 21st century audio standards. Nevertheless the brilliance of Waxman’s handiwork is not diminished, and the CD offers a fine listening experience. Franz Waxman’s MGM years of 1936 – 1943, while less famous than later opuses, never-the-less offer a wealth of excellent scores. Waxman understood that the story presented a coming-of-age story for Harvey, set against a backdrop of a commercial fishing schooner fishing in the north Atlantic. Kinetic music for action sequences, would need to be juxtaposed by more intimate music, which spoke to Harvey’s bonding with Manuel, the trauma of Manuel’s death, and Harvey’s reconciliation with his father. For his soundscape Waxman supported with three primary themes and a motif. Two of the themes interpolate sea faring songs, which translated well for the story and helped to bring authenticity to its narrative. The main or Manuel’s Theme perfectly captured the paternalistic benevolence of Manuel whose mentoring impact in Harvey’s life was profound and ultimately, transformative. The film’s tale needed a bold musical construct to propel its seafaring narrative and the Adventure Theme’s dramatic fanfare and kinetic force was well-conceived and employed by Waxman. In scene after scene Waxman’s music masterfully fleshed out each of the character emotions, endearing them to us, and ultimately weaving them within the very sinews of our heart. The thematic interplay and contrapuntal writing were exceptional, and offers a testament to Waxman’s compositional gift. I believe this score to be and early opus masterpiece, a gem of the Golden Age, and I highly recommend you purchase this excellent four CD compilation album for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to a seven-minute suite; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3Mu6HUKmdA

Buy the Captains Courageous soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (1:36)
  • In The Night/The One I Love Best (0:46)
  • Here Comes Cushman (2:03)
  • Back On The Boat (0:40)
  • Bad Boy (1:15)
  • After The Song/Fishing Montage (Retake) (4:00)
  • Cushman Sailing/Anchor Up (Retake)/Sailing Along (4:22)
  • Manuel Overboard (3:03)
  • Manuel Drowns (2:48)
  • Manuel’s Death/Back In Gloucester (2:28)
  • Harvey’s Father (2:48)
  • In The Church (2:02)
  • In The Dory (1:54)
  • Rock Of Ages/End Title (1:51)
  • Exit Music (2:29)
  • After the Song/Fishing Montage (Original) (4:00) BONUS
  • Cushman Sailing (Alternate)/Anchor Up (Alternate)/Sailing Along (4:51) BONUS

Running Time: 43 minutes 18 seconds

Intrada ISC-390 (1937/2017)

Music composed and conducted by Franz Waxman. Orchestrations by Paul Marquardt, Charles Maxwell and Clifford Vaughan. Score produced by Franz Waxman. Album produced by Douglass Fake.

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