SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: BOYS ON THE BOUNDING MAIN
This is the tenth chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.
Boys on the bounding main
Far more interesting than “KIM” or “THE JUNGLE BOOK”, in the context we’re discussing here, was Kipling’s “CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS”, filmed three times, and least faithfully of all, but most memorably, by Victor Fleming in 1937. It’s no secret that Spencer Tracy believed he was giving the most grotesque performance of his career, playing a Portuguese fisherman with a hokey accent, Harpo Marx fright wig, and called upon to sing a corny little shanty for good measure – “Hey-ho leetle fee-eesh don’t cry don’t cry..” Tracy hated it. He was given a “Best Actor” Oscar for that performance, much to his astonishment and dismay, and quietly absented himself from the award ceremony. He did not send a sea nymph to decline the Oscar on his behalf.
Freddie Bartholomew for his part certainly delivered the performance of his career. He begins the film in prissy petulant mode, with which audiences were all too familiar, but when he is hauled onto the fishing boat and quickly winnowed down to size, Bartholomew does undergo an emotional metamorphosis of sorts. At the core of the film is another man/boy/man love triangle, between rich brat Harvey, his essentially decent but remote father (Melvyn Douglas) and lovable tar Manoel (Tracy). Harvey chooses between them without hesitation, but again the script contrives a fatal accident to remove the “alternate father” from the scene. It was high melodrama, it was shameless, and the public wept buckets of brine, but no attempt was made to play down the passionate intensity of Harvey’s feelings for Manoel. This was a love story, among all the manly fish-gutting business and the gouging of fish-hooks from arm-flesh without so much as a whimper. The public accepted it because Manoel made much play of his fondness for the señoritas, and because he was after all simply a “stand-in” for the absent father. Any other reading of the material would have been impossible in 1937. Any other reading has become impossible again today. That’s progress for you.
Kipling’s original triangle was restored for the (now-forgotten) 1977 television remake. It is crusty but benign Captain Disko (the always dependable Karl Malden) who takes the surly Harvey under his wing, while Manoel (Ricardo Montalban) recedes colourfully into the background. The critics loathed Jonathan Kahn (son of casting agent Brigitte Kahn), seeming to forget that his bitchiness was a performance — he’d played a similar role the year before in “THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA” (1976) — but one comes across that a lot in researching film reviews. Most male critics simply have no patience for boys on the screen and write dismissively of them if they can trouble to mention them at all. When a boy delivers an undeniably first-rate performance, it is invariably the director who gets the credit. Leonardo diCaprio, for instance, was truly astonishing as Arnie in Lasse Halstrom’s “WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE?” (94), playing an 18-year old with the mental age of five, but he received no major award for it, when many a “Best Actor” or “Best Actress” gong have been handed out for less. Halstrom is to be applauded for recognising talent like DiCaprio or Pelle Hvenegaard (in “PELLE EROBREREN”), but he doesn’t deserve the credit for their performances too.
The 1996 low-key “CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS” tweaked the story once again, making Harvey an orphan, and boosting the prominence of Disko’s son Dan (Kaj-Erick Eriksen, the part played by an unusually subdued Mickey Rooney back in 1936), so that the story now became a boy/man/boy triangle, with the death of Dan resolving their competition for the sea captain’s favour. Boy bereft of his father brings solace to father bereft of his son, what could be tidier than that? Let us be shipshape by all means.
Similar salty goings-on featured in “DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS” (49), where fatherless Dean Stockwell, 13, is in peril of being packed off to boarding school if his shipboard studies don’t improve. At the same time ship owners force a young mate (Richard Widmark) full of new-fangled navigation ideas onto Stockwell’s aging old-fangled grandfather Lionel Barrymore. The captain takes his revenge by ordering the new mate to coach his grandson between duties. This does not go down well with either one, but after initial squalls the boy and younger man hit it off famously, exciting the jealousy of the grandfather. The ship’s cook warns Widmark of the situation, and he cools his fondness for the boy, which Stockwell is at a loss to understand. Hell hath no fury like a ship’s boy spurned, and Stockwell engineers his way aboard a whaling boat, precipitating a crisis. Against the Captain’s explicit orders, Widmark sends a rescue boat out to search for the missing boy and is promptly stripped of his command. Barrymore plans to set him ashore at their next port of call, and Stockwell, horrified by his grandfather’s ingratitude, insists on being set ashore with him. He, like Harvey, has been forced into making a choice, and he makes it without hesitation, choosing adult friend before family. But fear not, screenwriters know just how to resolve pesky little conflicts like these. Barrymore’s days on this earth are numbered. He too must exit the scene, allowing man and boy to, ahem, live happily ever after. In the best possible taste, of course.
The seafaring genre is rich in such yarns, the ocean swells being an exclusively masculine domain. In decades past you could scarcely hurl a stone out a Hollywood producer’s window without hitting a “TREASURE ISLAND” in production (there have been literally dozens), a swashbuckler, a “SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON” or some other tale of castaways swarming over desert islands. Most recently we have seen “MASTER AND COMMANDER — THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD” (2003), in which the relationship between the ship’s surgeon and a midshipman (Max Pirkis) of no more than 12 is about as close as current pruderies will allow. That film is the more admirable for dodging two common pitfalls of historical films already discussed — half a dozen young boys, not just the one required by the plot, are evident among the ship’s complement of the HMS Surprise without attracting any comment in the script, and the film tries hard to be faithful to the beliefs and speech patterns of its period, not the beliefs and speech patterns of the year it was made. It did not really convey the claustrophobia and stink of life aboard such a tiny vessel (more akin to a WWII submarine), nor the class hierarchy that was at its starkest in the King’s Navy, but some of the squalor and danger of Napoleonic seafaring does come across, and only a few concessions are made to the prim revisionists.
These are all stories of yo-ho-homosociality, and that is a word guaranteed to set the hairs bristling on the neck of any morbidly heterosexual male, but homosociality simply means the natural preference of males — both men and boys — for masculine companionship. The crossover region between that and its kindred term, which still makes six out of ten males finger their shotguns, is vague and ill-defined, explicitly so in the cinema’s case, and Hell will freeze over before we see on screen what actually went on aboard many a naval vessel or oceangoing fisher ship, so far as jolly tars and cabin boys were concerned. As the cinema tells it, there was never any hammock-hopping below decks. And the cinema never lies. When all’s said and done, masculinity still has its secrets, as well as its essential myths, to preserve.
The best “TREASURE ISLAND”, for my money, was not Disney’s estimable 1950 version, pairing pert Bobby Driscoll with the furniture-chewing Robert Newton, and certainly not the 1934 classic, teaming glum Jackie Cooper and the aw-shucks Wallace Beery. No, it was the 1990 made-for-television film, with Charlton Heston terrific as Silver and a surly, butched-up Jim Hawkins in Christian Bale (too old and too contemporary by far). Splendidly shot, briskly edited, and with a fine supporting cast (Christopher Lee, Oliver Reed, Pete Postelthwaite), it managed by luck or judgment to strike precisely the right note of danger and recklessness. It also had a better period musk to it than those more famous versions. There’s a cold glint in Heston’s eye and toothy grin which makes him no comic book pirate, and when he roars “Them’s as dies’ll be the lucky ones!” you know he’s not kidding. Disney, incidentally, received a heavy fine for casting Driscoll, then 12, for the role in 1950. UK law still placed very severe restrictions on the use of child actors. Uncle Walt was not amused.
And the worst “TREASURE ISLAND”, for the record, was not the woebegone 1972 Orson Welles version, with a fretful mouse of a Jim Hawkins (Kim Burfield), but the ghastly “SCALAWAG”, released a year later. This was, if you please, a comedy musical Western transcription of the oft-told Stevenson yarn, shot entirely on location in Yugoslavia, for reasons surpassing understanding, and fraught with production difficulties from the outset. Long John Silver was played as an amiable peg-legged bandit by Kirk Douglas, and “Jamie” by the luxuriantly haired but skill-impoverished Mark Lester, still just about fending off puberty at 15. The songs were so dreadful they were cut from the film before release, but it remains a hopeless limp-witted fiasco, strictly for hard-core Lester worshippers.
Continue to the next chapter: The Western as playground (girls keep out!)