Silent child star Baby Peggy plays the captain of the title, a castaway orphan who is raised by a scruffy lighthouse keeper (Hobart Bosworth). The story is slight but that actually works in the film’s favor as it allows the viewer to focus on what’s really important: the talented Baby Peggy and the peerless Bosworth.
A celebration of cute
Two things about silent films that I will insist to the bitter end: the animals were cuter and so were the children. The animal claim is easily provable. Look at Keystone’s Teddy, or the famous Rin Tin Tin, or Brown Eyes the cow.
And the children? Well, Jackie Coogan comes to mind. So does Baby Peggy. Not as well known to modern audiences, she was an ideal combination of adorable and talented. Just five years old when Captain January was made, Baby Peggy was already a star and the film was meant as a vehicle for her growing popularity. The movie is also delightful family fare that easily stands the test of time. It’s just as sweet and enjoyable today as it was in 1924.
So, lighthouses, orphans, Hobart Bosworth… Who’s with me?
Baby Peggy plays an orphan who was discovered washed up on a beach after a storm. Jeremiah Judkins (Hobart Bosworth) is a cranky lighthouse keeper who has raised the child since babyhood. Named Captain January, she and her adopted father are completely devoted to one another.
Civil servants never mean well when they show up in a silent film and, sure enough, there are meddlers who want to take Captain January from Judkins to have her raised “properly”. No one, however, is brave enough to try to force Judkins to give up his young ward.
That is, until a ship arrives carrying someone who just may be Captain January’s last living relative. So the story turns into a serious drama. Will Judkins give up Captain January? Can she do without him? Have the hankies ready, folks! If the story seems simple, that’s because it is. It is a tale with the moral that parental love comes in many forms.
Hobart Bosworth couldn’t seem to stay away from nautical fare (I’ve already reviewed Below the Surface and The Sea Lion) and he is excellent as the salty old Jeremiah Judkins. Bosworth is one of the wonderful talents of the silent screen that is sadly forgotten by modern viewers. He could always be counted on to turn in a rich and thoroughly professional performance.
Baby Peggy had a cute face but her physical looks were actually the least important part of her appeal. At a young age, she had mastered the art of pantomime and put across unusually complicated emotions for her youth. With surprisingly subtle gestures and expressions, she shows her love for her adopted father, her innocent joy in her lighthouse upbringing and her horror at having to leave it.
Silent films were quite advantageous to child performers. Instead of memorizing lines, they were free to create performances out of pure movement and emotion and they did this quite well. Child acting has never quite recovered from the coming of sound.
Captain January is a first-rate family film but there is plenty of appeal for the non-family audience as well. Heart-warming without being cheesy, sweet without being trite, Captain January is a lovely bit of entertainment.
Where can I see it?
Available on DVD from Milstone as part of a small Baby Peggy collection. The whole disc is well worth obtaining. Grapevine video has also released Captain January on DVD-R.
Ok, one more thing. I wanted to do a Silents vs. Talkies feature for this movie using the 1936 Shirley Temple remake of this movie. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get past the 20 minute mark. There was pain. I had to stop.
I declare Baby Peggy the undisputed winner of Captain January.