US / ~55 minutes cut to 48 minutes / bw / Irwin–Dyer Productions, Favorite Films Dir, Pr & Scr: Jack Irwin Cine: Edward Kull Cast: Rex Lease, Smith Ballew, William Farnum, Gibson Gowland, Robert Frazer, Gilbert Holmes, Allene Ray, Harry Allen, John Ince, James Irwin
If ever a movie had a tortured genesis, Gun Cargo was it. Production started on what was initially called Contraband in the early 1930s, probably in 1934, although sources are divided as to exactly which year. Money ran out soonish, and the project was abandoned until 1939, when initial footage was added in the form of the Board of Inquiry hearing that forms the frame story, the main story being told in the form of flashbacks from here. Seemingly at the same time, in 1939, a barroom sequence was imported from the (very much more interesting) 1930 Lupe Velez movie Hell Harbor to pad out the running time a bit and in a desperate attempt to provide the main plot with some resolution and a link to the framing device of the hearing.
Another addition that seems to have been made in 1939 was an appallingly dubbed barroom rendition of “I Dream of Jeanie” by cowboy crooner Smith Ballew, who appears nowhere else in the movie yet gets second billing. Go figure. Presumably Ballew’s agent insisted on the prominent billing and then the pair of them watched their “win” backfire.
The movie seems to have been finished (if finished it can be called) in 1941, at which time, according to the AFI, it was approved for theatrical release—at least in the state of New York; at that point its running time (calculated from the recorded footage) appears to have been about 55 minutes. However, it appears what was by now named Contraband Cargo was never in fact theatrically released. If so, its first release came in 1949 as a TV movie, now known as Gun Cargo and cut to 48 minutes. This version appears to be the only one that survives.
The backstory, alas, is rather more intriguing than the movie itself, which is marked by incoherent plotting, dodgy pacing and ham acting—characteristics you’d expect given the way the piece was slapped together.
It’s 1906 and Mr. Winthrop (Ince), owner of the Winthrop Line, sacks the skipper and crew of the Black-Rover. He plans for the ship to take an illicit cargo of contraband weaponry to Santino. Winthrop’s nephew Fred (Frazer) suggests they employ newly qualified skipper Jim Parker (Lease) for the voyage, with Jim himself as First Mate; if need be Parker can have an “accident at sea” to cover up the plot.
So a new crew is recruited—the worst scum and vagabonds thedastardly duo can find in the harbor—and off the Black-Rover sails. Also aboard are the ship’s cook Gimpy (Holmes) and Jim’s fiancée Helen (Ray), who with Gimpy’s cooperation has smuggled herself aboard as the extraordinarily unboyish galley boy Herman—the flatteringly figure-hugging pants were a big mistake so far as disguise was concerned.
Jim discovers the illicit cargo. There’s a mutiny, a huge storm at sea, an assault on Helen’s virtue that’s as subtle as something out of a Tod Slaughter movie, some strategic amnesia . . . all linked together by a strongly accented voiceover narration that’s clearly meant to be Jim speaking but sounds nothing like him.
Most of the cast were far better known for their B-movie oaters than for anything else, and that probably could be said of Allene Ray as well, although her real reputation was built upon the action serials she made, doing all her own stunts, first for Pathe and then for Universal. With the advent of the talkies her career foundered because her voice, while generally judged pleasant enough, simply didn’t suit the new medium. She retired from the screen in 1930. Gun Cargo was, because of its complicated history, by a good measure the last of her movies to be released, but it seems also to have been the last she made. It was a sorry way for her to bow out, but at least it can be said that the banter between her and Gilbert Holmes, as Gimpy, is, albeit sometimes a tad heavy-handed, perhaps the main—arguably even the only—reason to watch the movie.