Clark Gable and Joan Crawford starred in eight movies together, and if the preceding seven showed them as beautifully as their final feature, Strange Cargo, I’m in for a massive treat. Strange Cargo seems drawn from similar features of the ’40s like The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) wherein there’s a main adventure that plays out as part of a bigger, preordained storyline, much of it dealing with religion. Director Frank Borzage tells a story about people cast aside by society, perceived to be a certain way and thus deemed broken and expendable. These personalities find them cast against a backdrop involving redemption and salvation. Consider it the action-adventure version of Stagecoach (1939).
Verne (Gable) is a convict living on Devil’s Island known for his escape attempts. One day on the island he meets Julie (Crawford), a prostitute. When Julie is expelled from the island for something Verne did, it puts the two on a collision course to escape entirely.
There’s a certain mien to watching prison escape movies in the ’40s. Most of them take place on remote prison colonies, usually located somewhere in French Guiana, and the opening crawl that introduces Strange Cargo is no different. Clark Gable’s Verne has been on the island long enough to have a somewhat friendly relationship with the guards, but it’s never completely believable that Verne is bad. With that wicked glint in his eyes, easy smile, and his penchant for vomiting up “baby” at the end of every sentence, this is isn’t a man whose a murderer so much as a loveable roue.
Since this was his eighth pairing with Crawford it’s not surprising their camaraderie is affable and familiar. Julie is a woman who wears what she is on her sleeve, walking down the street with a parasol as if she’s daring a man to talk to her. The man who takes the plunge is Verne and while his tactics are a bit dated – holding her leg and threatening to throw her into the sea unless she agrees to meet him – the two have charm to spare. Joan Crawford played a character like Julie countless times, but she’s so magnetic to watch. Men throughout the entire movie seek to own her, most especially the lecherous “Pig,” played by Peter Lorre. When Julie’s forced to leave the island, purely because she’s a woman, it puts her on a collision course with various men who all want her to give up a piece of herself to them, mainly for the wrong reasons.
Half the fun of Strange Cargo’s runtime is the relationship that develops between Julie and Verne. Much like Gable’s interactions with Jean Harlow in Red Dust (1932), the chemistry between the two actors on-screen is definitely sexual, even if the Production Code demanded something more chaste. Julie, being a prostitute, is placed in the position of having to prove her love for Verne, which, at the end, implies giving up her sexual autonomy to a man like the Pig in order to secure the love of Verne. What’s fascinating is that Verne and Julie are both flawed and highly sexual beings, and while the movie ends with them finding some form of domesticity, Verne’s going back to jail to finish out his sentence implies mutual sacrifice.
But Julie and Verne are merely the average humans when cast against a larger parable involving the mysterious Cambreau (Ian Hunter) who the inmates see as the reincarnation of Jesus. Hunter’s quiet British accent and upper-crust manner is meant to imply humility, but it’s hard to particularly see him as Christ-like though, in 1940, it’s easy to understand why many would so easily believe a white British guy is the next Jesus. But where this could be utilized as a plotline for corruption, Cambreau makes the characters better people. He brings Verne and Julie together like a guardian angel reminding the audience that even in a hellscape like a penal colony religion still exists. What Borzage and screenwriter Lawrence Hazard do is tell a feature with incredible depth that doesn’t slap you over the head with its message.
Strange Cargo certainly isn’t for everybody. It’s interesting to think that if it was released ten years before how saucy it might have been, in the vein of Red Dust. It’s hard not to see the scrubbing it underwent to please the censors. That being said Gable and Crawford are pure sex and that helps sell the entire feature.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.