"Strange Cargo" has all of the trappings of an exotic 1930s adventure film: a fog machine, sound effects in the jungle that don't make sense, quicksand, long-grown facial hair, ripped clothes, accents that range from not trying at all to over-the-top, and even a shark attack. While the film isn't as light in the head as the Tarzan films that starred Johnny Weissmuller, "Strange Cargo" isn't that great either, either because there isn't enough action or because it's too long. Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, in their eighth and last pairing together, barely manage to save the film from utter failure.
This time around, Gable plays André Verne, a prisoner that is completely desperate to get out of his water-locked jail. So when one of his fellow prisoners (Albert Dekker) devises a sure-to-be-flawless scheme to break out, Verne takes the risk, along with seven other jailbirds. They plan to take a sailboat as soon as they get to shore, and ride into the mainland.
Verne brings along his new girlfriend Julie (Crawford), a woman who arrived on the island as a lounge singer but quickly was fired after her relationship with him was discovered. As the plan is put into action, the prisoners end up having a hard time, as the trip begins with a long journey through the jungle, with little food and water.
When they actually to get to their boat, things begin messily, and completely cynically. But everything begins to change when one of the fellow passengers begins to resemble a saint-like figure.
The film's biggest problem is with its fascination with religion, and while moments certainly cram it down our throats, most of the time it leaves us more confused than anything. "Strange Cargo" tries to convince us that the wise Cambreau (Ian Hunter) is God or at least God-like, and that the characters find redemption through him. But as a supposed adventure film, this side-plot basically ruins everything. As dramatic as it sounds, it's not an exaggeration.
Everything starts out excellently: Crawford and Gable automatically sizzle the film with their slick chemistry, the dialogue is quick-witted, and the steamy setting is enticing. But once the main set of characters land on the boat to escape, everything goes downhill. The plot almost ceases to move -- most films in the similar category would at least have the police hot on their tale or even a hurricane -- but "Strange Cargo" instead focuses on its characters, all of whom are too unlikable (except for Crawford and Gable, although Gable pushes it) to truly create interest. Once the religious angle is introduced, the eye-rolls begin. It's surprising how fast something can go completely wrong.
And it's sad. Crawford and Gable are fantastic together on screen. She, so glamorous and refined, is easily sexy, while he is grizzled, smart-alecky, and tough as nails. They make for a great contrast, and it's not hard to imagine them as a romantic couple. While there are moments in "Strange Cargo" where this quality is shown off, there isn't nearly enough.
It's a shame that Crawford and Gable had to go out like this, because they've done so much better. Had it looked anything like 1935's "China Seas," which saw Jean Harlow as the female lead, it would have been a rollicking adventure, and a complete grand finale. Too bad it didn't turn out that way.