Strange Cargo is the 1940 film about two unsavory characters amongst a group of unsavory characters, who, in their quest for freedom from a French penal colony in the middle of the jungle, meet a strange, saintly fellow that impacts their lives. The film, an adaptation of the 1936 book “Not Too Narrow . . . Not Too Deep” by Richard Sale, stars Joan Crawford, who demanded top billing, Clark Gable, and Ian Hunter.
A Sight for Wandering Eyes
Andre Verne, played by Clark Gable, is an inmate in a New Guinea penal colony; he is a thief, drunkard, and womanizing scoundrel with deep-seated convictions and an almost forgotten conscience. Verne, while on work detail outside the prison gates, is happily surprised when his wandering eye catches a glimpse of a long-legged, stunning brunette, played by Joan Crawford.
Vern manages to get the young woman’s name, Julie. She is a nightclub singer/escort who’s had several run-ins with the law. Julie was given a final warning about being social with the inmates, and so she wants nothing to do with Vern. Julie fears she will be forced to leave the island if she gets caught with the flirtatious inmate.
Altered Getaway Plans
An unusual inmate clandestinely joins the group as the prison work crew returns to lockup. A calm, soft-spoken man, Cambreau, played by Ian Hunter, speaks in parables and advocates for peaceful resolutions to bitter disagreements. Cambreau adds an air of mystery as he seems to know all the men, despite the fact that no one knows him.
In the midst of having a conversation with Cambreau about life, Vern gets wind from another inmate that a rival group is planning an escape. Not wanting to be left behind, Vern confronts the leader with an ultimatum, allow him to join, or he will start a fight, and both will end up in solitary confinement. Vern’s request is granted, but under one condition, pay a hefty fee in accordance with the rest of the fellows. With no money in his pockets, Vern vows to get the cash, but he doesn’t have to because Cambreau joins in on The conversation and says he will pay for Vern under one condition: that he be allowed to pay for himself and also join the group.
An Unexpected Female and a “Pig”
The group alters their plans to escape and reluctantly allows the two uninvited prisoners to join in on the scheme. The lawless bunch soon discovers there’s no honor among thieves, and their self-serving motivations set in as the men find themselves in precarious and sometimes deadly situations. The consternation of the group heightens when Julie joins the men. She is hoping to leave the island and escape “M’sieu Pig,” played by Peter Lorre, a lowlife, creepy stool-pigeon, infatuated with her. M’sieu Pig attempts to track down and follow the group, hoping to win Julie’s affections.
Verne experiences an epiphany near the end of the film when he comes to understand the nature of Cambreau’s character. But Verne must deal with some unfinished business involving Julie and M’sieu Pig, and he must make a major decision regarding his freedom or the alternative—go back to prison.
Strange but in a Good Way
Throughout their trek, the escaped convicts continually notice that Cambreau is strangely different, even divine. The movie conveys an underlying message of faith and redemption, but you must pay close attention to hear the moralism.
The messianic character is always at the right place at the right time. Most of the men appreciate Cambreau’s advice and heed his admonitions, but others take longer to warm up to him, and one . . . well, one man may spend eternity wishing he had trusted the “strange cargo.”
The spiritual character Cambreau drew strong objections by The Catholic Legion of Decency and The Film Production Code Office, and as a result, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer made several script changes. Regardless of the changes, some groups still protested the film when it premiered on March 1, 1940.
Strange Cargo was released two months after Gable’s big hit Gone with the Wind, and you’d expect him to get top billing in Strange Cargo, but that was not the case. Reports indicate that Crawford demanded top billing over Gable, and her demands were met when her lawyers got involved. Before filming, both stars enjoyed a long friendship and, at times, an intimate relationship. Strange Cargo was the last film Gable and Crawford made together, and they were no longer friends when the movie wrapped.
Verne—Clark Gable: A handsome womanizer, drunk, and a thief.
Julie—Joan Crawford: A young, beautiful nightclub singer, party girl, and prison guard companion.
Cambreau—Ian Hunter: A saintly Christ-like figure, who seemingly appears out of nowhere and exhorts the prisoners to walk the “straight and narrow.”
M’sieu Pig—Peter Lorre: A creepy, lowlife stool-pigeon infatuated with Julie. M’sieu Pig follows the group of escapees in an attempt to win Julie’s affections.
Hester—Paul Lukas: A stark contrast to Cambreau, he is a devilish figure who leads a group of ten prisoners in an escape attempt. Hester clashes with the men and coerces Vern into a game of chicken with a deadly beverage.
Strange Cargo is a fascinating love story woven into an action adventure about a group of unscrupulous, yet sympathetic, inmates trying to escape from prison. The chemistry between Gable and Crawford is scorching, despite their chili dispositions for one another, and Hunter is convincing as the messianic stranger who becomes a friend to most.
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