Recommended Books II by matthew c . hoffman

The 2015 film series, Cinema of Transcendence, was largely inspired by one film book: Divine Images: A History of Jesus on the Screen by Roy Kinnard and Tim Davis. However, since our last screening a couple years ago, I have found many other books on the subject. This will be very useful to anyone interested in “Faith in Film.”

Catching Light: Looking For God in the Movies by Roy Anker
Of Pilgrims and Fire: When God Shows Up at the Movies by Roy Anker
Finding God in the Movies: 33 Films of Reel Faith by Catherine Barsotti, Robert Johnston
God in the Movies by Albert Bergesen, Andrew Greeley
Bible and Cinema by Adele Reinhartz
The Continuum Companion to Religion and Film by William Blizek
Paul Tillich and the Possibility of Revelation Through Film by Jonathan Brant
Catholics in the Movies by Colleen McDonnell
The Filmgoers Guide to God by Tim Cawkwell
Cinema Divinite by Eric Christianson
Cinema, Religion and the Romantic Legacy by Paul Coates
Wicked Cinema by Daniel Cutrara
Into the Dark by Craig Detweiler
Encyclopedia of Religion and Film by Eric Michael Mazar
Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema by Kenneth Morefield
Discovering World Religions at 24 Frames Per Second by Julien Fielding
Film and Religion by Paul Flesher, Robert Torry
Face to Face With Angels by Sandra Gorgievski
The Religious Film by Pamela Grace
Imagining Religion in Film by M. Gail Hamner
The Sacred and the Cinema by Sheila Nayar
Celluloid Sermons by Terry Lindvall, Andrew Quicke
The Catholic Church and Hollywood by Alexander McGregor
Cinema and Sentiment by Clive Marsh
The Celluloid Madonna by Catherine O’Brien
Saints, Clergy and Others on Film and Television by Ann Paietta
Cinema as Pulpit by J. Ryan Parker
Scripture on the Silver Screen by Adele Reinhartz
The Religion and Film Reader by Jolyon Mitchell, S. Brent Plate
Representing Religion in World Cinema by S. Brent Plate
The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film by John Lyden
Hollywood Dreams and Biblical Stories by Bernard Brandon Scott
Screening Scripture by George Aichele, Richard Walsh
The Bible on Silent Film by David J Shepherd
Teaching Religion and Film by Gregory Watkins
Religion and Film: An Introduction by Melanie Wright
Images of the Word: Hollywood’s Bible and Beyond by David Shepherd
The Bible on the Big Screen by J. Stephen Lang
Hollywood Biblical Epics by Richard Lindsay
The Gospel in Disney: Christian Values in the Early Animated Classics
by Philip Longfellow Anderson
Faith in Film by Christopher Deacy
Between Hollywood and Godlywood by Nathalie Dupont
Movies That Matter: Reading Film Through the Lens of Faith by Richard Leonard
Sanctuary Cinema: Origins of the Christian Film Industry by Terry Lindvall
Theology Goes to the Movies by Clive Marsh
Reel Revelations by John Walliss, Lee Quinby
The Hidden God: Film and Faith by Mary Lea Bandy, Antonio Monda
Screen Jesus by Peter Malone
Salvation in Celluloid by Robert Pope
Jesus of Hollywood by Adele Reinhartz
Christians in the Movies by Peter E. Dans
Sacred Profanity: Spirituality at the Movies by Aubrey Malone
Religion in Film by John R. May, Michael Bird

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End Credits

We are pleased that One Foot in Heaven brought in a large crowd for our final show!
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We would like to thank all our series regulars and semi-regulars who attended Cinema of Transcendence this spring. We averaged 54 patrons a week with the highest-attended film being One Foot in Heaven (71).

This season we had hoped to attract new audiences as well as the church-going crowd, but neither group attended. Despite presenting two of the finest family films ever made in our last two weeks, not one parent brought their child to either Stars in My Crown or One Foot in Heaven. The closest we came was a father who came down to the meeting room looking for a bookmark/schedule for his daughter who was with him. They didn’t stay for the movie. (We were out of the bookmarks since we had been offering them at the front desk for the past three months.) Other patrons who had never attended before asked about the series, but in the end, John Q was more interested in placing reserves on movies like Hot Tub Time Machine 2.

When only 50 (!) show up for a movie like Angels With Dirty Faces with Cagney and Bogart, it’s a clear indication that the problem is with the community at large and how they define entertainment– not with the theme/films we selected. Despite distributing our flyers to all the neighboring churches, we doubt a word was sent out to any congregation concerning our faith-based series. Ministerial cooperation would’ve energized the program.

Our faithful…
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Despite the disappointing turnout– our lowest average ever–Cinema of Transcendence became the most rewarding program we’ve presented. Those who made the effort to come out enjoyed this year’s subject. In fact, on our last two shows, patrons were actually in tears when the movies ended. There are few films today that can impact viewers to that extreme. They were moved to the core. Other patrons expressed the impact of certain movies in their lives. In this way, the embers of Transcendence will continue to glow. Throughout the series we received many positive comments after each screening:

“It took guts in our very secularized culture to put on a series of this subject matter, but I think it is important to continue to tap into people’s religious instincts and their desire to contemplate the big questions of life. Presenting these films in this context was an  excellent way to accomplish that task.” ~Joe P.

If nothing else, this theme made us appreciate even more the dedication and support of our regulars. As we said in our final benediction last Thursday night, God bless them all.

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The Park Ridge Public Library Classic Film Series will return…

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Faith in Action: The Value of Transcendence

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Of all the programs I’ve put together for the PRPL Classic Film Series, Cinema of Transcendence was the least popular. Nevertheless, it was the most rewarding one on a personal level. Exploring the role of faith in film was something I always wanted to do, and many who did attend appreciated what we had to offer. From Opening Night with Douglas Fairbanks to our finale last Thursday, this was the best collection of films we’ve ever presented. Even the rarities in the series– films like Gabriel Over the White House and Dante’s Inferno— were of great interest and added a unique dimension to the theme.

Dealing with such themes as redemption, sacrifice, and forgiveness, the films in the series reflected the best of human nature. They showed religion in a positive light. (For instance, the John Stahl version of Magnificent Obsession was more likely to be presented here than the Douglas Sirk one simply because of the sincerity of its message.) This was not a series about cynicism or challenging one’s beliefs. There were no black comedies, scathing indictments, or negative portrayals about religious fanaticism. We certainly see enough of that in the news and in popular culture.

It’s not surprising that church attendance is dropping now when there are so many scandals. No wonder people become disenchanted with those who lead the church as well as frustrated by the policies, which often change with the times. One church in Park Ridge is asking members of its congregation to “donate” exorbitant amounts of money for their renovations. Contrast those expectations with how William Spence went about building his church in One Foot in Heaven. Of course, church leaders in Park Ridge might’ve learned a few things from the likes of a William Spence or a Parson Gray from Stars in My Crown– if they had bothered to attend.

Cinema of Transcendence was our own revival meeting and we hope we revived peoples’ interest in these films if not their faith in a Hereafter. The films showed the value of faith and how it works in the community at large. The principles of Christianity were at work in every film screened even if the characters in the films did not profess to be religious. One great example comes in Stars in My Crown when Alan Hale’s Jed Isbell offers to rebuild Uncle Famous’ farm after it had been destroyed by the Klan-like “Night Riders.” That’s a wonderful moment that shows Christian charity at work, and that’s what this series was all about.

~M.C.H.

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One Foot in Heaven (1941) by matthew c. hoffman

“Without waiting for an answer, he began to play ‘The Church’s one foundation Is Jesus Christ our Lord.’ He could not have chosen a more difficult tune, for it used every bell in the tower. But he played without a fault. People came to their doors up and down the street. The crowd left the veranda of the hotel a block away and stood on the sidewalk. Few of his listeners had ever before heard a chime.” ~ Hartzell Spence, One Foot in Heaven

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Transcript from 6/4/15:

I think for this final sermon of the spring I’d like to say a few words of a more personal nature in regards to tonight’s film. In One Foot in Heaven, Fredric March’s character speaks about the moral value of a movie he had just seen, and in a way, that is exactly what I’m doing tonight.

One Foot in Heaven is the film that inspired Cinema of Transcendence. I last presented it in October of 2003 at the LaSalle Bank Theatre in Chicago. It was part of my last program at the bank before I moved on from my position as programmer/projectionist. Moving on to the next challenge is certainly a theme in tonight’s film as well. In my own case, in 2003 I had finally convinced the LaSalle Bank to invest in a 35mm projector. It was what the bank series needed after many years of playing movies on Saturday nights. It was not easy building the program up, but after four years, it was time to leave and begin anew. I left the theatre with the satisfaction of knowing I was able to present some really good films to the community. One Foot in Heaven was one of the most special.

For years it was unavailable on home entertainment. Occasionally Turner Classic Movies would broadcast it, but the only copy of it you were likely to find would be a “bootleg” copy. When I decided to do a series at the Library that explored the role of faith in classic film—Cinema of Transcendence became the more loftier name for it—I knew I wanted One Foot in Heaven to be part of it. Last year I asked members of my “Fredric March Film Society” on Facebook to write Warner Archive and let them know there was a demand for it, and I personally contacted that Warner division myself. I was able to reach the head of Warner Archive. His office relayed to me some good news. They were indeed planning on releasing it once the film elements were properly restored. They believed it would be available by the spring of 2015 in time for our program. As our deadline neared, however, I had given up hope that we would get it. But in March, it was finally released and we were able to add it at the last minute. This is why it doesn’t appear in our newsletter or on our bookmarks. There was no better film to end the program with than the one that inspired it in the first place.

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Like Jacques Tourneur’s  Stars in My Crown from last week, One Foot in Heaven is an episodic film about small-town America. It tells the true story of a Methodist minister named William Spence. It’s based on the best-selling book of the same name written by his son, Hartzell Spence. It’s a wonderful read and it inspired me to visit one of the parishes Spence had preached at in Dodge City, Iowa. The film is true to the spirit of the book as it details the life of a circuit preacher.

The story concerns the various problems that arise as Spence travels from one parish to another—from leaky holes in the parsonage roof to the gossiping society women who spread malicious lies. One Foot in Heaven takes an honest look at church politics and shows the hypocrisy that is as rampant today as it was back then. As Fredric March’s character says, “The real heathens are in the church.”

Throughout Cinema of Transcendence we’ve seen films that have a certain perspective in terms of religious denominations. The gangster genre with Angels with Dirty Faces had a distinctly Catholic viewpoint, whereas the quasi-Western Stars in My Crown was very much in the Protestant tradition. One Foot in Heaven examines another denomination of Protestantism. The Spence family is not like other families as so many of life’s enjoyments fall outside their Methodist Discipline, though Spence shows he is willing to listen to the younger generation. Initially motivated to point out the evils of the movie house to his son, William Spence’s trip to see a William S. Hart silent movie becomes a personal revelation as well as one of the highlights of the movie. One Foot in Heaven is composed of beautiful scenes such as this that deal honestly with the values of faith in a changing world.

And like Stars in My Crown, there is a conflict with science. Here it’s the town doctor played by Jerome Cowan who scoffs at religion during a drugstore debate. It was a major story thread through the Jacques Tourneur film, but here it is dealt with in one simple scene, although very well played.

Fredric March
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What makes the film work so well are the performances. Fredric March was, in my opinion, the most accomplished screen actor of his generation, and we’ve screened three of his films in this series alone. He conveys the convictions of a real man of God, infusing his character with humanity, humor, and a reverent strength.  The beautiful prayers that he speaks in the film are some of his finest moments. Hartzell Spence, who wrote the book, said his mother wanted Fredric March for the role of her husband. March’s last emotional scene in the film– showing both his character’s commitment to his calling and his disappointment at moving on yet again–is some of his best work as an actor.

Martha Scott, who had recently starred in Our Town with William Holden—a role for which she would be nominated for an Academy Award– was cast as March’s self-sacrificing wife, Hope. She would go on to play Charlton Heston’s mother in both The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur. Originally Olivia de Havilland was slated to play this role, but Warner Bros. decided to move her to the Errol Flynn movie They Died With Their Boots On. In addition to the two leads, there is great support from some of Hollywood’s best character actors. Besides the aforementioned Jerome Cowan, there’s Laura Hope Crews and Harry Davenport—both of whom audiences might recall from Gone With the Wind. Gene Lockhart plays an outspoken member of the congregation with his own ideas of how the new church should be built. In the scene in which William Spence is laying out his plans to the building committee, there are some familiar faces that the die-hard classic film buffs will recognize, including Frank Reicher and Hobart Bosworth.

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The film was directed by Irving Rapper who had previously been a dialogue director on films for Michael Curtiz. In a TCM article, Frank Miller writes, “Rapper prodded his cast to perform simply and naturalistically, using close-ups to discourage overacting. But his position as a tyro showed when he had to shoot a big action scene involving a raging fire that was shot on location in Los Angeles. He was so intrigued by the mechanics of staging the fire and the sheer spectacle of it all that when the cameras finally rolled and flames shot to the skies, he was so enthralled he temporarily forgot to call action, despite the fact that he had rehearsed the scene effectively during numerous dry runs.” Rapper’s direction gave the film a warm and gentle tone.

Max Steiner did the wonderful film score which adds considerable depth to the film. As with Stars in Crown, One Foot in Heaven relies heavily on the musical motifs of a particular song. The Church’s One Foundation, which is sung in the final scene, was a Christian hymn written in the 1860s by Samuel John Stone, inspired by the Apostles’ Creed. As an aside, I had asked the Park Ridge Community Church to play this piece today at noon on their bells. I recall hearing this hymn played before at the church. However, the songs that you hear ringing out every day at lunchtime are played on a loop and they can’t control which song will be played on what day.

As with all the films in this program, One Foot in Heaven offers a positive image of religion. It is an uplifting film that leaves one feeling good inside—a transcendence of spirit. The film presents us with a vision of community and how faith is interwoven in it. One Foot in Heaven recreates a time that seems all the more distant, a place where old-fashioned morality and family values were the high standard. It’s a film that is honest, true, and good.

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Addendum: We had 71 in attendance on 6/4/15, making One Foot in Heaven the best-attended film of the series.

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Recommended Reading

Here are two books we’d suggest for additional information on our subject. The Roy Kinnard and Tim Davis book is highly recommended.

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Stars in My Crown (1950) by matthew c. hoffman

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Winner of the prestigious Freedom Foundation Award, this episodic Western is a supreme entertainment that is thoroughly refreshing in today’s cynical times. Set in the years after the Civil War, it’s the story of a small Southern town, Walesburg, as remembered by the narrator of the film, John Kenyon. It’s more than nostalgia for childhood but rather a longing for a special time and place. It’s a portrait of America long gone in which the traditional teachings were the best values one could have. There were problems to be sure—town bullies, typhoid fever, racial intolerance—but there was the parson who guided the community through the hardships while revealing his own self-doubt in the darkest hours.

Joel McCrea as Parson Josiah Gray is a man of integrity and inspiration. In turn, others have faith in him and in what he has to say. McCrea biographer Tony Thomas wrote, “Stars in My Crown is one of the stars in the crown of Joel McCrea. The role of the strong, likeable pastor fits him like a glove. It is quintessential McCrea, thoroughly American and straight as an arrow. This pastor is no mere Holy Joe; when he strides into a saloon and slams a pistol on the bar the patrons pay attention. And when he faces down the Klanners there is no doubt that this is the man who could do it. He knows about prejudice and greed and ignorance, and how to do something about it. Josiah Doziah Gray is Joel McCrea at his best.”

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Also in the cast is Ellen Drew as Harriet Gray, child actor Dean Stockwell as John Kenyon, James Mitchell as Dr. Harris, the practical doctor with more faith in medicine than in prayer, Amanda Blake as the schoolteacher, Alan Hale in his last film, Lewis Stone, and Juano Hernandez as Uncle Famous. Hernandez had appeared in Intruder in the Dust the previous year, which also dealt with lynch mobs. Also in the cast, though uncredited, is James Arness. He and Amanda Blake would go on to star in the long-running television series “Gunsmoke.”

Stars in My Crown was based on the book of the same name by Joe David Brown with an adaptation by Margaret Fitts. The book and film take their title from a Protestant hymn, Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown, which was originally composed in the 19th century.

Stars in My Crown was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who was best known for the film noir Out of the Past as well as the atmospheric horror films he made with Val Lewton at RKO including Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie. But the darkness of those earlier films has been replaced by hope and optimism. In a style that recalls the best of John Ford, Tourneur’s artful hand and rural compositions make this American tale one of the best films of the 1950s. Tourneur reportedly waived his normal salary demands in order to make the film his own way without any studio interference. As a result, he made a film which he believed was his best.

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There’s a wonderful introduction of the film on an online site called True Film in which the moderator writes, “Tourneur conjures the palpable aura of one era giving way to another, with an emphasis on growth, renewal and healing—both spiritual and physical. Pastor’s Gray’s fight on behalf of Famous Prell for the community’s soul is paralleled with the story of a young, idealistic atheist doctor fighting a typhoid outbreak. As we transition from one era to another, the characters learn to see themselves not as divided polarities (young and old, black and white, men of faith and men of science), but as forces of complementary balance, inextricably linked together, each with inherent worth and dignity.”

Stars in My Crown received a “Critic’s Choice” review from the Chicago Reader when I screened it at the LaSalle Bank Theatre as part of a 29 film series devoted to Our Cinema Heritage. It’s a great film that is not only one of the best examples of faith in film, but it’s one of the best films I’ve presented at the Park Ridge Public Library. In a society that is ever-changing, Stars in My Crown is a reminder of a time when religion still mattered to the majority. America at the time of this story had a deeper sense of community and a stronger spiritual identity. Stars in My Crown plays out like a glowing memory of America.

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Strange Cargo (1940) by matthew c. hoffman

“Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.” ~Hebrews 13:2

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With her acting—and his presence—Joan Crawford and Clark Gable were two of Hollywood’s biggest heavyweights. Strange Cargo was their eighth, last, and most unusual teaming. Under the direction of Frank Borzage, it became something more than another star vehicle. It’s the story of several convicts who try to escape Devil’s Island with the aid of a mysterious stranger. The film’s theme of spiritual regeneration was an offbeat topic for a mainstream studio like MGM, which was better known for their romantic dramas set in upscale, urban settings. Gable & Crawford are a long way from that here. Strange Cargo is a fascinating deviation from the packaged entertainments of the time.

Clark Gable is Verne, a tough-talking, smug convict determined to escape a French penal colony. While on a work detail along the waterfront, he meets Joan Crawford’s Julie, a café entertainer with a questionable past. Verne takes a shine to her and eventually involves her in his escape. There are several prisoners with Verne—thieves, murderers, and men with dark pasts. But there is one man among them who doesn’t quite fit in, a stranger by the name of Cambreau. He will lead the men through the jungle and out of the darkness of their souls.

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The catalyst for the story is the character of Cambreau. Unlike the films that will follow in Cinema of Transcendence, he is not a minister, yet he is able to lead others to self-discovery. As in our own world, there are many who are embittered and warped by circumstance–people in need of a self-inventory. Strange Cargo deals with this without sermonizing or judging. Moralizing, afterall, tends to steer people in the opposite direction. But by making the convicts look at themselves, Cambreau gives them the opportunity to cleanse themselves of the dirt. To the film’s credit, not every character is transformed by Cambreau’s sense of faith. As in life, not every person finds peace or attempts to seek it.

Strange Cargo was based on a novel by Richard Sale called Not Too Narrow… Not Too Deep. The screenplay emphasized the allegorical aspects whereby characters attain a symbolic meaning. This is most obvious in the intellectual confrontation between the atheist Hessler and Cambreau, who becomes the conscience of the men. When they square off, we forget this is a Gable-Crawford movie. There is a metaphysical quality that hovers over the proceedings—a fantasy dimension that recalls other films like Destination Unknown (1933) and the British production, The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935).

Ian Hunter as Cambreau
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In order for this story to work on the screen, Strange Cargo needed an extraordinary cast. This was Clark Gable’s first film after Gone With the Wind, so he was at the height of his popularity at this time. Joan Crawford had recently made a comeback of sorts with 1939’s The Women. Her star appeared to be rising again. Though Strange Cargo has the star power, it’s the supporting actors who really make the production as interesting as it is. Peter Lorre has a small role as Monsieur Pig, the stool pigeon who lusts after Julie. The convicts are made up of an all-star team of great character actors including Ian Hunter as Cambreau. Hunter was a British actor whose career alternated between the stage and motion pictures. He starred in many films at Warner Brothers and is probably best known for his role as King Richard in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

Paul Lukas, who would later win an Oscar for Watch On the Rhine (1943), plays the murderer, Hessler. The other notable performances include Albert Dekker as Moll, J. Edward Bromberg as Flaubert, and Eduardo Ciannelli as Tellez. Strange Cargo is remembered today, if at all, for the byplay between Gable and a decidedly unglamorous Crawford. Here, she gets stripped away of makeup and her $40,000 Adrian gowns. However, the film really belongs to the one with the last line in the movie.

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Strange Cargo was directed by the often overlooked Frank Borzage. Anyone not familiar with him needs to see films like 7th Heaven (1927) and The Mortal Storm (1940). One of his better-known works is the film noir Moonrise (1948). Borzage’s films, especially those made during the silent era, often featured a visual romanticism heavily influenced by the German director F.W. Murnau. A recurring theme in his best films dealt with love’s transcendence over adversity. Borzage was one of the most evocative filmmakers when dealing with this type of subject matter. Borzage had mixed melodrama and religion earlier with 1937’s The Green Light, which starred Errol Flynn. Borzage’s final film, The Big Fisherman (1959), was a biblical epic that told the story of Saint Peter. Strange Cargo would deal overtly with Christian themes, but there would be no saints in this one.

Writer John Belton wrote of Borzage’s characters, “Verne’s discovery of a need for something outside of himself, though centrally at issue in his relationship with Cambreau and his spiritual system, leads him to a deeper love of and need for Julie. What is great about Strange Cargo is the interdependence of these two threads. Borzage’s demand that his characters attain a spiritual awareness that goes beyond an immediate love relationship to a sympathy with and need for the world around them marks a significant expansion of the director’s concerns and a deepening of the beauty of his art.”

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Mainstream Hollywood rarely dealt with such issues, but instead of being commended, the film was condemned by the Catholic Church and their Legion of Decency because it presented a “naturalistic concept of religion contrary to the teachings of Christ and the Catholic Church,” as opposed to an evangelical understanding of God. But Strange Cargo is not to be condemned. It suggests that God dwells in all of us and is among us. Even in the most hellish places on Earth, we are not alone. Some of the more pious audiences back then may have been offended that God’s spirit would manifest in a penal colony housing every form of social degenerate. They may have forgotten the words of Jesus when the Pharisees questioned why He would eat with sinners: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.” (Matthew 9:12)

Audiences in 1940 weren’t interested in seeing Clark Gable find salvation. They stayed away. Strange Cargo made a profit of only $21,000 at the box office. The film’s producer, Joseph Mankiewicz, reportedly said, “It was almost a good film. I wish it could have been made later. It was tough doing any kind of film that even approached reality in any way.”

Strange Cargo is not for everyone. There will come a moment in the story when you will wonder what exactly is going on—or it may come as a complete revelation. Irrespective of one’s interpretation, Strange Cargo is a beautifully-made film about redemption—a theme we’ve been dealing with in this series since the first week with The Gaucho.

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