Strange Cargo [1940]

Those looking for heavy doses of melodrama, good old-fashioned storytelling, and--of course--more Joan, look no further. The Joan Crawford Collection, Vol. 2 offers up a fine assortment of some of Crawford's popular second-tier titles that helped secure this unstoppable actress' well-deserved seat in the court of Hollywood royalty. Spanning from 1934 to 1954, the five films take viewers on a journey over peaks and valleys of Miss Crawford's tumultuous but often spectacular career and permits a glimpse into the star's adeptness to the changing times of movie making. The first film, 1934's Sadie McKee, captures a radiant Crawford, still riding high as the queen of MGM, playing the eponymous poor cook's daughter who struggles to keep her principles intact through her rocky romances and unexpected rise to riches. Nobody plays an unlikely do-gooder like Crawford, and this splendidly entertaining film is one of her finest. 1940's Strange Cargo features Crawford as a dive-bar singer and frequent co-star Clark Gable as a gritty prison escapee joining forces to flee a remote island. A religious parable, jungle adventure, and prison escape movie in one, Strange Cargo maintains suspense and action surprisingly well. A Woman Face (1941) is beautifully directed by one of cinema's best, George Cukor, who provides Crawford with one of her most accomplished dramatic roles: Anna Holm, a woman whose face is horribly disfigured as a child. Anna's physical appearance drastically alters her destiny, and becoming full of spite and bitterness, she turns to a life of crime. When the opportunity to correct her scars presents itself, the story takes a sharp turn into suspense-thriller and courtroom drama territory, eventually making its way to a totally improbable and predictable but equally exciting finale. Flamingo Road (1949), which went on to become a nighttime television soap opera in the `80s, sees Crawford as Lane, a hardened carnival dancer who finds herself stranded in a small town facing crooked men and parochial hypocrisy. Lane's a tough cookie and unsurprisingly manages to cross the bridge from rags to riches while triumphing over her foes in a delicious reversal of fortune. The story may be hackneyed, but Crawford's histrionics provide a juicy good time. This was her first foray into playing roles that are clearly too young for her, yet her portrayal is so earnest one simply doesn't dare question the rather enormous leap in realism. Like pieced-together leftovers from much finer musicals, 1953's Torch Song is the weakest movie of the bunch but still worth a gander. Here, Crawford plays an embittered and aging musical stage star whose unlikely romance with a blind pianist might turn around her lifetime of heartache. The film probably isn't one of her career highlights but offers up some surprisingly poignant, all-too-real moments. Joan Crawford Collection, Vol. 2 comes with an abundance of extras including several interesting featurettes covering her career at Warner Brothers and her work with Clark Gable as well as several entertaining old-fashioned cartoons. There's also some amusing Torch Song outtakes of Crawford aspiring to sing. (Once you've heard them you may understand why her voice was dubbed.) Many of Crawford's characters have been described as being only slight manipulations of the real Joan; a tough woman looking for a little respect and trying to make it in a man's world. This collection should help vindicate her efforts. -- Matt Wold

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