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Strange Cargo (1940) is best known today as the eighth and final film co-starring Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. It is also a haunting and unusual film, controversial in its day, and considered by many critics to be the best expression of the metaphysical themes in the work of director Frank Borzage.
Based on a novel, Not Too Narrow, Not Too Deep (1936), by Richard Sale, Strange Cargo is, on the surface, the story of a group of hard-bitten convicts who escape from Devil's Island prison, and the prostitute who joins them on their journey. One of the men is a mysterious and intensely spiritual person who becomes a catalyst for the redemption of the others.
Crawford and Gable had been friends, frequent co-stars, and sometime-lovers for a decade. But they had not appeared in a film together in four years, and their relationship had grown strained over her refusal to co-star with him in Parnell (1937), a historical drama which had proved to be a disaster for Gable. Now, both were coming off hits. After Gone With the Wind (1939), Gable was the biggest star in the world. And following a series of mediocre films, Crawford had redeemed herself with a saucy performance as the home-wrecker in The Women (1939). So both were eager to re-team, and let bygones be bygones.
The production of Strange Cargo was uneventful, if at times uncomfortable. In contrast to her $40,000 Adrian wardrobe on The Women, Crawford's costumes on Strange Cargo -- three dresses bought off the rack at a chain store -- cost less than $40. In a scene where the stars ran through the jungle, they passed a snake in a tree. After shooting the scene once, Crawford realized that it was a live snake. Even though the snake's mouth had been secured shut with a rubber band, Crawford refused to do another take.
The real problems began after production ended. A month before Strange Cargo was released, Crawford realized that Gable's name would precede hers in the credits. Phone calls and memos to MGM executives from Crawford and her minions followed. Although the title credits were processed and prints of the film were about to be made, Crawford took her case to the top. MGM chief Louis B. Mayer was called in to make the decision. Back went the prints, and the film opened with the title card, "Joan Crawford and Clark Gable in Strange Cargo."
More problematic were the censorship issues Strange Cargo faced at every step. The Production Code office had refused to approve the initial script because it contained too much "illicit sex" and brutality. Once that was resolved, the Catholic Legion of Decency objected to the saintly character played by Ian Hunter. They felt that he was portrayed as a Christ figure, and that audiences would accept his pronouncements as the word of God. Because the character was key to the story, MGM refused to make changes. So Strange Cargo received a "condemned" rating from the Legion for presenting "a naturalistic concept of religion contrary to the teachings of Christ, irreverent use of Scripture, and lustful complications." The film was banned in Detroit, Boston and Providence, and picketed by Catholics elsewhere. Eventually, MGM agreed to make some minor changes, and the Legion of Decency reclassified the film as "unobjectionable for adults."
Reviews for Strange Cargo were mixed. There was praise for the performances, but some critics found the film's combination of high adventure and mysticism confusing. And the censorship controversy, along with Strange Cargo's downbeat, unusual subject matter, kept audiences away. Even the film's producer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, would later say, "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." But more than 60 years later, Strange Cargo remains one of the few films made by a major studio, at the height of the studio system, which is genuinely provocative and complex.
Director: Frank Borzage
Producer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay: Lawrence Hazard, Lesser Samuels, based on a novel by Richard Sale
Cinematography: Robert Planck
Editor: Robert J. Kern
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Franz Waxman
Principal Cast: Joan Crawford (Julie), Clark Gable (Andre), Ian Hunter (Cambreau), Peter Lorre (Cochon), Paul Lukas (Hessler), Albert Dekker (Moll), J. Edward Bromberg (Flaubert), Eduardo Ciannelli (Tellez).
BW-114m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri