Strange Cargo (Frank Borzage / U.S., 1940):

Strange, as in MGM-megastars-forgoing-make-up-for-wacky-religious-parable strange. The jungles of a Guiana penal colony provide the setting, and "a good time for blasphemy." Clark Gable is introduced emerging from solitary, stubbly and shivering but determined to break out of the proto-Papillon rathole; Joan Crawford materializes still in her Sadie Thompson getup, they engage in a bit of ankle-grabbing raciness ("You hate hard, baby, so you love hard") before the Messiah-in-disguise narrative gets underway. The other fugitives include burly Albert Dekker and "kid" John Arledge, plus wife-poisoning Paul Lukas and fervid Bible-thumper Eduardo Ciannelli. Peter Lorre peeps from the sidelines as a porcine snitch, but the Enigmatic One is Ian Hunter, beatific gaze and all: "Iíve been around. Maybe we just havenít made connections yet." His mere presence is enough to get the convicts in a confessional mood, even Crawfordís tough saloon gal, who knows the salvation drill from experience ("It starts with a Bible in one hand and me in the other"), ends up hungering for transcendence. Hunter has a bit more trouble convincing Gable, nothing a little stormy-sea crucifixion canít fix. Frank Borzage navigates his troupe of visionaries, proselytizers and devils through jungles (one marvelous, unbroken panning shot of Gable and Crawford crossing a swamp casually spots an alligator heading their way as the heroine adjusts her hat) and claustrophobic sailboats, collecting salvation along the way. His usual blend of spirituality and sensuality is here at its most delirious, attuned to equatorial heat and madness. Despite the pious pitfalls it sets for itself, itís a strikingly open film -- the gay Dekker-Arledge duo is treated as a romantic couple that parallels (rather than contrasts) Gable and Crawford, while Lukasís sardonic Bluebeard is actually allowed to go into the night, unpunished and unredeemed (but not before a momentary chill out of Bernanos). BuŮuelís Death in the Garden is a keen, mocking study. With J. Edward Bromberg, Frederick Worlock, and Bernard Nedell. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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