I have been watching a lot of Joan Crawford movies, trying to pinpoint the point in her very long filmography when she went from being a glamour girl on the studio contract to a dramatic actress able to tackle juicy dramatic roles. I had thought that A Woman’s Face provided the actress with her first real dramatic role in 1941, but not I realize that Crawford was playing challenging roles from pretty much the beginning. Take the year 1932, in which Crawford starred in three films: the rarely seen Letty Linton, in which she plays a socially upward moving young woman who murders a blackmailing former lover and gets away with it, Rain, in which she appears as a prostitute whom a missionary attempts to reform, and Grand Hotel, where she is a stenographer aspiring to be an actress, hinting to her lecherous boss that she is able to do more than just typing if he is able to help advance her career.
In Strange Cargo, she plays another hard-hitting role as a “fallen woman.” Crawford plays a cafe singer working in a port town near a French penal colony, but it is never fully explained how she came to be in such a godforsaken place. Clark Gable plays a jaded prisoner with a history of failed escape attempts who talks to the singer when he is out on work duty on the docks. When he escapes and comes to her dressing room, he leaves her in just as precarious a situation as he is in as a prisoner, trapped on the island with no means of leaving. When he joins an escape with other prisoners, he brings her along. One of the other prisoners quotes from the Bible and exerts an spiritual influence over the others as the suffer thirst and starvation on the open seas, suddenly turning this action film into a fairly heavy, and heavy-handed, Christian allegory.
While Clark Gable is good as a tough-as-nails thief, he does not seem especially French, and Crawford is not much more authentic. The fact that some of the some of the other actors attempt French accents creates a rift that mars the powerful story arch. But this type of mixed-bag approach is still ruining movies today.