Any film condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency can’t be all bad! STRANGE CARGO depicts a bunch of hardened, unrepentant criminals escaping a brutal French Guiana prison, with a prostitute in tow to boot, and is laced with plenty of lascivious sex and brutal violence. But that wasn’t all the self-appointed guardians of morality objected to… there was the character of Cambreau who, though the film doesn’t come right out and say it, supposedly represents none other than Jesus Christ himself!
Clark Gable and Joan Crawford , in their eighth and final film together, lead this pack of sinners through a sweltering jungle of lust, murder, and ultimately redemption. He’s a con named Verne, “a thief by profession”, whose several attempts at escape have proved unsuccessful. She’s Julie, a two-bit hooker plying her trade on the island. The pair, as always, crackle like heat lightning with some hard-bitten, racy dialog (Gable: “Supposing I wasn’t a convict? Supposing I was sailing through on my yacht, or a guy selling brushes?” Joan: “Yeah, suppose I was Snow White”). Verne manages to sneak out and into Julie’s boudoir (upstairs from the local saloon, of course!), but the swinish M’sieur Pig, who lusts after Julie, rats him out, forcing Julie off the island by order of the local authorities. Pig is played by Peter Lorre at his creepiest, such a scumbag even Julie won’t sleep with him (“You’re the one man in the world I could never get low enough to touch!”).
Verne’s enemy Moll (the equally scumbaggish Albert Dekker ) has planned a great escape, along with some other unsavory characters ( Paul Lukas , Eduardo Ciannelli , J. Edward Bromberg, John Aldredge). The saintly Cambreau pays his and Verne’s way to join them, but that double-crossing rat Moll conks Verne in the head while he’s asleep (with a shoe!), leaving Verne behind – but not for long, because Cambreau has left behind a map of the escape route inside a Bible! Verne, after rescuing Julie from the clutches of a horny mining camp owner (Bernard Nedell), catches up with what’s left of the cons, and they make their way to a waiting boat. But freedom always comes with a price….
Cambreau is played by Ian Hunter , and it’s never fully explained just who he really is, but there are all sorts of clues along the way. He’s always in the right place at the right time, and offers aid and comfort to the sick and dying. The film is loaded with theological and spiritual debates, as when Cambreau comforts the dying Tellez (Ciannelli). Later, when Hessler (Lukas) bids the survivors adieu to search for another rich woman to kill, the two have a sparring match about whether or not they’ll meet again. It’s pretty obvious to me this is God and the Devil talking! Finally, in the scene where Verne loses his cool and knocks Cambreau off the ship, the angelic Cambreau hangs onto a piece of driftwood in the raging sea, arms splayed as if he were on the cross. No wonder the Catholic Legion of Decency got their cassocks all in a bunch!
Then again, these guys were out to censor just about everything they didn’t think impressionable young minds (or old minds, for that matter) should be exposed to. Formed in 1933, the Legion was even stricter than the Production Code then being enforced by the dour Joseph Breen. A ‘CONDEMNED’ rating from the Catholic Legion of Decency meant certain doom, and they put their black stamp on anything they deemed offensive. Besides the anti-drug films of the era (ASSASSIN OF YOUTH, THE PACE THAT KILLS, REEFER MADNESS ), some other films judged taboo were THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII (divorce), THE OUTLAW (can’t have people staring at Jane Russell’s boobs!), THE MOON IS BLUE (for daring to use the word “virgin”), and BABY DOLL (just fat-out “morally repellent”). Even something as innocuous as 1945’s MOM AND DAD, a Roadshow production promoting sex hygiene, was denounced as being too strong for delicate audiences. The Legion wielded enormous power during their heyday, until the 1960’s rolled around with a new breed of filmmakers determined to make more adult pictures…. for better or worse.
Anyway, back to STRANGE CARGO. The film was directed by Frank Borzage, who won the first directing Oscar for SEVENTH HEAVEN, and whose credits include STREET ANGEL, BAD GIRL (his second Oscar), A FAREWELL TO ARMS, THREE COMRADES, and THE MORTAL STORM. His films are filled with romanticism and spirituality, and it’s no surprise to find STRANGE CARGO in his canon. His work is considered old-fashioned by many today, but it’s definitely worth looking into. This particular film would’ve been called a classic if made during the Pre-Code era, and can be enjoyed on several levels. Just don’t let the Legion of Decency know you’re watching!
Oh, and Happy Easter!