“Captain Caution” (1940) gives us a chance, if nothing else, to mark that this year is the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. It was a puzzling, disjointed little war and this is a puzzling, disjointed little movie. Victor Mature would rather not fight the war, and he seems to be the only one in this movie with any sense.
The year this movie was made, Great Britain was struggling for survival against Nazi bombing raids, and the US, still officially neutral in the early years of World War II, had not even started slipping aid through the Lend-Lease program, signed into the law the following year. We just stood by and watched. The War of 1812 was the last time Great Britain was our enemy, and though movies should be allowed to stand apart from current events as purely art, they often do not, intentionally. A scene at the end of the film where a British sea captain agrees to a personal truce with Victor Mature’s crew so that they may join together to fight a common enemy might have been a convenient, palatable ending, or it might have been in the original novel. I don’t know, but it is convenient. Our real-life sympathies for Great Britain in their predicament were beginning to gnaw at us.
Victor Mature is First Mate on “The Olive Branch”, a symbolic enough name for a merchant ship sailing back to its home port of Arundel, Maine. Robert Barrat is captain and owner of the ship. His daughter, played by Louise Platt, is on board to keep the ship’s log on her beautiful lady’s finishing school handwriting, and to plague Victor Mature. They were childhood friends, and now they are battling sweethearts. One wonders what he sees in her, because she’s as petulant a shrew as ever sailed the seven seas.
A crew of lovable miscreants huddles below decks and swings in hammocks. El Brendel is one of them, who plays a lute and sings very sweetly of the seaman’s sweetheart “Hilda”.
It is August, 1812, and they have been sailing from China for over 100 days. They do not know that President James Madison declared war against Great Britain in June. So, it comes as quite a shock when a British war frigate comes along sides, shoots cannonballs at them, and takes them all prisoner, except for the captain, who is killed.
Captain Caution is a bitter nickname Louise Platt tags on Victor Mature because he advises surrender and negotiation to get the men back home. Especially since they are not armed to fight sea battles.
Now that her father is dead, Miss Platt vows vengeance on the British and she’s willing to take up with anybody who will help her, including Bruce Cabot, who has an unsavory reputation as a slave ship captain. He will do anything for money.
When they are rescued from the British by an American war frigate, Bruce Cabot joins the crew as Miss Platt’s First Mate. She declares herself captain, and her brief scenes striding about the deck giving orders are the most interesting aspects of her role, however far-fetched they might be. There were pirate queens back in the day who mastered their own ships, but Louise doesn’t seem to be the type who can suddenly adopt authority and a thorough knowledge of seamanship when she has spent her time before that pouting and shrieking.
Other newcomers on deck include Leo Carrillo, who we last saw in “History is Made at Night” (1937). He plays his trademark bumbling, bombastic sidekick with the funny, over-the-top accent.
Vivienne Osborne is his jealous coquette of a wife.
A young J. Pat O’Malley has his first movie role as a fishmonger; blink and you miss him.
Clifford Severn is the British drummer boy who is taken captive by Victor Mature’s band and has become such a mascot that by the end of the movie, he joins his new American friends. Clifford and several of his siblings were child actors in many films, and you may recall his brother Christopher as Toby in “Mrs. Miniver” (1942).
Alan Ladd has a small role as an American sailor held captive on another British warship. He helps Carillo and Mature to orchestrate an escape. It wouldn’t be too long before he had starring roles and you can see why in this movie. Ladd has a magnetic screen presence and he delivers his lines in a passionate manner. Interestingly, he shows more emotion here than he would in his more famous roles when his characters were usually more buttoned up.
It is an occasionally odd movie, but there are two powerful elements going for it. First, there are some good hand-to-hand combat scenes on fog-shrouded decks, with cannonball-splintered spars falling around them, tearing into square sails, and frigates on fire.
Second, the trio of Victor Mature, Bruce Cabot, and Alan Ladd have got to be the most handsome set of fellows ever to eat hardtack. You can’t keep your eyes off them.
Mr. Cabot is quite mesmerizing. We know he’s the villain, his record speaks for itself, but usually villains are presented as ugly, creepy, mustache-twirling types. Cabot is manly, rugged, intelligent, and has guts. If he weren’t so evil he’d be a great guy to have on your side. Mr. Ladd, despite a small role, comes off as a romantic hero with his abundant wavy hair and flashing eyes. And Victor Mature is charming in a role unlike his usual sneering, haunted noir outings. He’s funny and thoughtful. He is careful and judicious, Captain Caution, as it were, but saves the day at the end when he makes a bold move.
The only fault I can see in him is his love for Louise Platt. He’s too good for her. There’s a lot that's clunky in this movie, but as Leo Carillo hopefully says, “Nothing is impossible if it’s possible.”
Arundel, by the way, though an old place name for this area of Maine, was part of Kennebunkport when novelist, and Kennebunk boy Kenneth Roberts wrote “Captain Caution”. He specialized in historical novels, (he also wrote Northwest Passage) often with New England slants. A popular novelist of his day, after the last of his series Chronicles of Arundel was finished, the community was officially re-named Arundel in 1957.
Have a look at my New England Travels post this week for more on the War of 1812, and the USS Constitution.