When several new movies starring women earned less money than expected recently, a studio executive pronounced no more movies starring women! I'm not sure if he was teasing or ranting, but, fortunately, Warner Bros. aren't so down on their female stars of older times. Thus, their catalogue department has "The Joan Crawford Collection," Volume 2, a follow-up to Volume 1 a couple of years earlier. Naturally, Volume 2 doesn't have quite as good Crawford films in it, but there are still a couple of things of value. WB are only making the five Crawford films in the box available as a set, so let me describe all of them to you, with special emphasis on one in particular.
Taking the films in chronological order, the earliest is "Sadie McKee," from 1934. Clarence Brown directed, with Crawford's co-stars Franchot Tone, Gene Raymond, and Edward Arnold. I haven't seen this one since television when I was a kid, but I recall it being a typical Crawford rags-to-riches vehicle of the Depression era, lightweight, romantic, silly. 5/10
From 1941 comes what I remember as one of the best Crawford movies of all time, "A Woman's Face," directed by George Cukor and co-starring Melvyn Douglas and Conrad Veidt. It's a rather dark tale about a woman with a scarred face who turns to crime and then finds a stab at happiness through the kindness of a doctor. Pretty well done, actually. 7/10
Next up is "Flamingo Road," from 1949. This is one I've never seen, but I remember hearing about it in my youth. It played in my town when I was about six or seven years old, and my parents went to see it by themselves; they thought it might be too racy for me. I considered watching it on DVD for this review, but I didn't have the time to watch more than one complete film in the set. From what WB's press sheet says, Zachary Scott and David Brian co-star, and the much underrated Michael Curtiz directed. I can't give you my personal rating for the film because, as I say, I've never seen it.
Then, from 1953 we find "Torch Song," directed by Charles Walters and co-starring Michael Wilding. In this one Crawford plays a musical stage star, a pompous diva, who has everything going for her except somebody to call her own. Wilding plays a blind pianist with a thing for her. If it sounds sudsy, it is. It's also the only film in the box that is in widescreen and color. Enjoy, if only for melodrama. 5/10
Which brings me to the film I chose to watch again, "Strange Cargo" from 1940. I viewed it again, after probably forty years, because I think it's the most watchable movie in the set. Starring Crawford and Clark Gable, the story is a bizarre allegory, an adventure and a parable at the same time.
First, the particulars: Frank Borzage ("A Farewell to Arms," "The Shining Hour," "The Big Fisherman") directed it; Joseph L. Mankiewicz produced it for MGM; and Lawrence Hazard adapted the screenplay from a book, "Not Too Narrow...Not Too Deep," by Richard Sale. Those are pretty good credentials.
Gable and Crawford play a couple of tough cookies. Gable is Andre Verne, a prisoner on Devil's Island. But he's no sissy prisoner whom the system wrongfully locked up; he's an admitted thief who knows he deserves his incarceration. Not that the movie ever refers to the penal colony as "Devil's Island," by the way. The preface just says "Deep in the Guianas...a penal colony for men set aside to be forgotten by the world they lived in--for men to whom the present, the future and the past are one--for men without hope." Verne is a rebellious type, cool as ice but flamboyantly reckless. Gable had just come off a super year in "Gone With the Wind," and this follow-up finds him in a similar bigger-than-life, take-charge role.
Crawford plays Julie, another hard type, a girl who works in a local "cafe," a polite euphemism for her shady profession in the days of the Hollywood censorship code. She and Verne meet while he's working with other prisoners on the dock.
The plot involves Verne and a number of other prisoners escaping from the penal colony, where in a rather convoluted way and through no willingness on her part, Julie manages to go away with them. Much of the story involves the characters' trek through the jungles and on a tiny boat as they make their escape. "There's nothing a man can't get through to be free," says Verne. In a way, the movie is a forerunner of Steve McQueen's "Papillon."
But here's the thing: On the day of the big breakout, a mysterious stranger named Cambreau appears in their midst. He seems to be just another ordinary convict, yet no one has ever seen him before. Where did he come from? He buys his way into the escape plan, and then he calmly advises the escapees every step of the way. When they're eventually starving in the jungle, he finds and brings them food; when they're lost, he finds them their way; when they're in despair, he brings them peace of mind. Who is this guy?
The other prisoners are all treacherous folk, starting with Moll (Albert Dekker), a mean lug who plans the escape and doesn't take kindly to Verne's or Cambreau's taking over his leadership position. Then there's Hessler (Paul Lukas), a man with no conscience, feeling, or sympathy, who murdered his several wives by poisoning. And back in town is M'seiu "Pig" (Peter Lorre), a slimy little guy whom Julie describes as "a sneak and a dirty stool pigeon." He's a shady character who would rat out his own mother for a buck, and, what's more, he's got the hots for Julie. Watch out for this fellow, particularly at the end.
And there's the mysterious stranger I mentioned, Cambreau (Ian Hunter), the Mr. Nice Guy who comes in amongst the prisoners and helps lead them to safety. In fact, not only does he help them with their bodily escape, he helps them with their souls; he helps them realize who they are, what they have done, where they are really going. Each of the escapees learns something about himself and herself, and, eventually, Cambreau offers each of them a form of salvation. Say, who is this guy? Hessler is the only scoundrel who recognizes Cambreau for who he is, and he agrees with him that when they separate, they will never meet again.
What will happen to Verne's relationship with Julie? More important, what will happen to Cambreau's attempts be break through Verne's and Julie's hard, selfish hearts? Or is there a connection between the two?
"Strange Cargo" is a rather talky adventure, but fascinating to say the least, with plenty of local color and offbeat characters. I don't think Hollywood has attempted so extraordinary a religious parable before or since. 7/10
As with the other films in the set, WB used a good print, the black-and-white contrasts in "Strange Cargo" looking every bit as good as they could possibly look without undergoing a full frame-by-frame restoration. The B&W image shows up quite vividly, there is very little grain, and there are very few age marks, a few flecks and specks here and there. I can't imagine anyone complaining about the video quality of this film because it looks terrific for a film nearly seventy years old.
The sound, too, is fine, given that it is an aged monaural. WB's audio engineers have reproduced it via Dolby Digital 1.0 mono, and about the only minor drawback is some occasional background noise at high volume. But why would you play it back at high volume? At normal playback levels, the slight noise is not an issue. As always with the audio on an older WB title, the midrange is crisp, clean, and smooth, and the whole thing is easy to listen to.
Each of the films in the set comes with its own set of bonus items. The ones on "Strange Cargo" include, first, a newly made, fourteen-minute featurette, "Gable & Crawford." In it, we learn that the stars made eight pictures together over a span of nine years, so they were quite the on-screen couple. Second, we have "More About Nostradamus," a ten-minute vintage short subject about the alleged prophet of the sixteenth-century. Third, there is a nine-minute 1940 MGM Technicolor cartoon, "The Lonesome Stranger," that looks quite good. And, fourth, there is a theatrical trailer for "Strange Cargo."
All of the films in the set come with English as the only spoken language, English and French subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired. "Strange Cargo" has thirty scene selections but no chapter insert. The five movies come on separate discs, all of them housed in a foldout Digipak, further enclosed in a translucent plastic slipcover.
"The Joan Crawford Collection," Volume 2, will no doubt interest any fan of the star, but the should also interest anyone who enjoys older films, too. Certainly, "A Woman's Face" and "Strange Cargo" are fascinating. "Strange Cargo" deserves special mention because, I mean, where else are you going to find a thief, a whore, and God in the same picture, and each of them played by such a glamorous movie star?
"And that's how it is, babe, and what can we do about it?" --Clark Gable to Joan Crawford, "Strange Cargo"