Frank Borzage’s Strange Cargo (1940) is a very strange movie; a sort of jail break romantic melodrama salvaged from complete absurdity by the palpable sparks playing off Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. Indeed, the two were in the middle of a heated romance while the picture was being shot.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, Joan had already begun to slip in her box office appeal. Staving off being fired from the studio by renegotiating her contract for less money proved only a temporary reprieve. L.B. Mayer would let Crawford go in 1943.
In Strange Cargo, Crawford is Julie, a café entertainer working her heart out near a French penal colony. She sweats and saves, but Julie’s life is an empty mess of rough neck Johnnies and dirty dishes. Not far off, the prison population sweats their own frustrations out behind closed doors. The inmates consist of ruthless Moll (Albert Dekker), the bizarrely Christ-like Cambreau (Ian Hunter), prerequisite loveable foreigner, Telez (Eduardo Cianelli), scholarly Hessler (Paul Lukas), Dufond (John Arledge), Flaubert (J. Edward Bromberg), oafish M’sieu Pig (Peter Lorre) and roguishly devil-may-care, Verne (Clark Gable).
After Moll instigates a prison break, Verne comes looking for Julie who is more than happy to escape her hum-drum nine to five for an adventurous life on the run. But the excitement quickly turns dark and ugly as one by one the inmates meet with untimely ends. As they die Cambreau administers his own version of solace and last rights – a sort of creepy farewell that suggests more than a hint of prior experience with life after death. Even Moll – the most brooding and heartless of the bunch – is eventually swayed to the divine by Cambreau; but not Verne.
Although Julie tries to persuade Verne of God’s understanding, Verne assuages commitment to anything but his own self preservation. Eventually, the motley crew is picked off to just Cambreau, Verne and Julie. Cambreau tries to convince Verne that the only way he will ever win Julie is to return to prison first and serve out the rest of his term. But Verne may die before he trusts God.
Based on Richard Sale’s novel ‘Not Too Narrow, Not too Deep’, the screenplay by Lawrence Hazard treads rather heavily on the religious aspect. Ian Hunter is poignant as Cambreau. But his performance is one-dimensional, merely serving as the catalyst for Julie and Verne’s ultimate happiness by removing each and every obstacle set in their path.
Given their passionate back story behind the scenes, it's no surprise to find that Gable and Crawford have genuine on screen chemistry – full-blooded animalistic and often raw passion is more like it. Borzage’s direction moves the story along at a breakneck pace so as not to allow us the opportunity to consider the improbabilities in the narrative. In all, Strange Cargo is amusing entertainment – hard-hitting with restrained glamour and a very dark underbelly.
Warner Home Video gives us a very sharp and pleasing B&W image with solid contrast. Age related artefacts are present but do not distract. Fine details are evident even during the darkest scenes. A slight bit of edge enhancement and some minor instances of film grain looking more digital than grain-like make for a less than smooth image overall. The audio is mono but presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include short subjects and a theatrical trailer. This disc is available separately or as part of Joan Crawford Vol. 2. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)