RICHARD SALE – Not Too Narrow, Not Too Deep.   Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1936. Paperback reprints: Armed Services Edition #S-7, 1940s. Popular Library 247, 1950.


Strange Cargo. MGM, 1940.   Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Ian Hunter, Peter Lorre, Paul Lukas, Albert Dekker, J. Edward Bromberg, Eduardo Ciannelli. Screenplay: Lawrence Hazard, based on the novel Not Too Narrow, Not Too Deep, by Richard Sale. Director: Frank Borzage.

   I’m a deeply spiritual person, in my own shallow, materialistic way, so as the Holidays drew near, I elected to read/ watch something morally uplifting and settled on Richard Sale’s Not Too Narrow, Not Too Deep and the movie made from it, Strange Cargo.

   Sale’s book is a taut, gritty, down-and-dirty parable of redemption, dealing Fate to ten convicts trying to escape from a tropical prison hell, written in spare, evocative prose, and filled with action and suspense that somehow doesn’t cheapen the story. It’s also populated with a colorful cast of well-wrought characters, some of whom surprised me from time to time.

   Unlike most parables, Narrow doesn’t shirk from things that were considered shocking in its time, like homosexuality, and pedophilia (still pretty shocking today, but no longer taboo in literature). In short, this is a one-of-a-kind thing, and I recommend it to anyone looking for a good read a little off the beaten path.


   A few years after it was published, Narrow got the MGM treatment, released as Strange Cargo, and should have been an unmitigated disaster, what with Joan Crawford written into the story (by Anita Loos, no less) to redo her Sadie Thompson bit, Clark Gable as an unrepentant and very virile heel, plus a cast of familiar character actors including Albert Dekker, Peter Lorre, Eduardo Cianelli, J. Edward Bromberg and Ian Hunter as the mysterious figure who somehow dominates the action despite Gable and Crawford.

   In fact, this is surprisingly a very effective film, thanks mostly to director Frank Borzage, who steers it deftly between schmaltz and pretentiousness, getting powerful performances from the stars but never letting them run away with the story. And there’s a fine bit from Paul Lukas as a satanic convict not in the book. The scene where he parts company with Hunter and the rest of the group, like an angel cast out of heaven, is one of those creepy, unforgettable movie moments that carry real dramatic weight.

   As a footnote, I might add that despite some cheap sops to the censors, this film was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, I think because it depicts God as a nice guy who tries to help out when he can.