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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