A lot of Strange Cargo is really good. Borzage isn’t the most dynamic director, but every time he has a startlingly mediocre shot, he follows it with a good one in the next few minutes. The film’s got lengthy first act–thirty minutes–and then moves from confined location to confined location. The first act is the prison, the second moves through jungle and sailboat at sea, with the third mostly contained in a room. Borzage does the best–and the film’s at its best–during the jungle sequences, when it feels like a big Hollywood vehicle for Gable and Crawford, only with a wacky subplot juxtaposed.
The wacky subplot is Ian Hunter’s Christ figure, helping out this group of prison escapees. Why they’re so important–not Gable and Crawford, who I can understand, they’re big stars, I mean the supporting cast (Paul Lukas being the best known)–is never explained. As plot holes go, it’s not the biggest in Strange Cargo (or the smallest–for example, when Gable escapes, he hightails it out of the line. He’s missing in the count and Hunter shows up in his place… suggesting they two know each other, which would have been interesting–they do not, unfortunately), but a lot’s forgivable, since Strange Cargo, while definitely strange, is also a big Hollywood vehicle.
Gable and Crawford have great chemistry with their characters–he’s the con who won’t serve his relatively short remaining sentence quietly because he’s not going to be locked up and she’s the woman who’s ended up, through a long string of bad choices, in the High Seas, singing and dancing at a bar–and, during their jungle scenes, it feels right. Later, when they reveal their inevitable deep emotions for each other, their performances keep it going. The script’s not bad and is quite good in some places, but it’s not exactly discreet in its symbolism.
Some of the supporting cast–particularly Lukas and Peter Lorre–is good. Hunter is okay, nothing more. Albert Dekker and John Arledge are not good. Still, they’re not terrible.
Unfortunately, the second act builds toward the film being better and then the third act, practically a stage production, falters. The end, with the neon symbolism, is also problematic. But Gable and Crawford bring it through.
Directed by Frank Borzage; screenplay by Lawrence Hazard, based on a novel by Richard Sale; director of photography, Robert H. Planck; edited by Robert Kern; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Borzage and Joseph L. Mankiewicz; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring Joan Crawford (Julie), Clark Gable (André Verne), Ian Hunter (Cambreau), Peter Lorre (Pig), Paul Lukas (Hessler), Albert Dekker (Moll), J. Edward Bromberg (Flaubert), Eduardo Ciannelli (Telez), John Arledge (Dufond), Frederick Worlock (Grideau, the Prison Head), Bernard Nedell (Marfeu) and Victor Varconi (Fisherman).