John Hawks (Chester Morris) is the hero of his college football team, but he’s willing to let the glory go for a romance with a wealthy, beautiful socialite named Alison Corning (Thelma Todd, billed under the alias of Alison Loyd).
John had been set to take over the coaching position of the team after graduation, but Alison convinces him to instead become “a real man, and make real money.”
John and Alison head off for the big city, where Alison’s father Stephen (Emmett Corrigan) works on Wall Street.
John turns out to have a knack for junk bonds and quickly finds himself with an excess of money and a life full of glamour, but Mr. Corning isn’t so sure about his daughter’s beau, warning him that he’ll never be a true success in the brutal jungle of Wall Street.
Discouraged by Mr. Corning’s feelings about him and growing tired of the unkind way he makes his money (by targeting the poor and elderly), John gets tossed out of Wall Street and heads in a different direction. He begins targeting bootleggers rather than the less fortunate. He figures the bootleggers deserve to lose their money, since they’re involved in illegal and immoral activities.
John gets more than he bargained for when he finds himself tied up in the criminal, violent world of the gangsters who quench the thirst of Prohibition-era party people.
Roland West directs 1931’s Corsair, which is based on the novel of the same name by Walton Green.
This film is notable not only as an example of the early “gangster” genre, but because it was Roland West’s last film. After completing this film, he decided to take a little break from Hollywood, planning to return at the end of the decade. West began dating the film’s star, Thelma Todd. When Todd tragically passed away in 1935, West vowed never to return to Hollywood. Speculation (including an alleged deathbed confession to this film’s other star, Chester Morris) has surrounded West’s potential involvement in Todd’s death.
West made three sound films during his career, and this is the least highly-regarded of the three, so I went in with not-too-high expectations.
Admittedly, Corsair is a pretty run-of-the-mill gangster film. Its characters are none too deep, and the story follows a fairly predictable trajectory. It’s the familiar story of a well-intentioned man who gets in way over his head when he decides to take on the mob. The story really has no surprises or stand-out elements to speak of, aside from the fact that some of it takes place on the high seas rather than in the usual darkened alleys.
That being said, I do enjoy the film’s blunt comparison of Wall Street and the mob. No subtlety exists here; West, his cast and his script paint both worlds as equally ruthless and evil.
Chester Morris does very well at carrying the film in his lead role as John, which also works in the film’s favor. He’s an actor I haven’t seen too much of but am consistently impressed by, and his talent is clear here.
Thelma Todd is also a delight to watch here, though her character is somewhat flat and I do feel that she’s under-utilized. Todd was known for comedy, and this role is a mere stepping stone in terms of development as a dramatic actress. I would have loved to see the character of Alison become more involved in the meat of the plot, given a significance aside from her romantic interest in John. As it stands, though, Thelma Todd is still very captivating on screen.
Corsair is no remarkable addition to the gangster genre, despite its efforts to set itself apart with the inclusion of modern-day “pirates.” Still, it’s a decent little watch that is worth its 75-ish minutes for fans of any of the lead actors, or for fans of the genre.
The score: 2.5/5