CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”
Those who read and admire the hard-boiled school of crime fiction consider Paul Cain’s “Fast One” to be one the toughest products of the genre. So when you hear that upscale Paramount–not gritty Warner Brothers–filmed it in 1933 as “Gambling Ship” and cast young up-and-comer Cary Grant in the lead, you get a bit leery. It gets better–the film had two directors, German-born Max Marcin and the French-born Louis J. Gasner, whose credits included such diverse works as the Pearl White serial “The Perils of Pauline” and the Midnight Movies standard “Reefer Madness.” Everything seems to be adding up to a train-wreck of a movie but–surprise, surprise–if you don’t go into it expecting a literal transcription of “Fast One,” it all manages to add up to a fairly entertaining crime movie.
Paul Cain was Peter Ruric whose stories are credited as inspiring the script by Claude Binyon, Seton I. Miller and Marcin–who a few years earlier had adapted Dashiell Hammett’s original story into the script for “City Streets.” Cain/Ruric’s hero, the hard-as-nails Kells becomes suave gang-boss Ace Corbin for the film version. Following his acquittal in a sensational trial, the Chicago-based Corbin decides to head off to California, dreaming of starting a new life. Of course if this happened there would be no movie, so a meeting with a lovely lady on a train leads to a partnership with gambler Joe Burke who owns a floating casino. Burke is in deadly competition with Pete Manning–the same Pete Manning who framed Corbin back in Chicago. All that you need know about Manning is that he was being played by the redoubtable Jack LaRue, who played more hoods in the 1930s than Cagney and Robinson combined. Roscoe Karns is on hand for comic relief as Blooey, Burke’s right-hand man who becomes Corbin’s right-hand man. Benita Hume played the lovely faux-lady and mistress of Burke who falls for Corbin, after having involved him in the Burke-Manning feud.
Everyone keeps wanting Corbin to go after Manning–Burke, the police, the D.A., even Manning himself–but Corbin keeps insisting that he wants to live a new sort of life. After a bombing about Burke’s ship, a sudden squall and an armed invasion by Manning and his boys the lively finale sees Burke shot by Manning, and Blooey and Corbin dispatching Manning and his men via a sudden release of the foundering ship’s anchor-chain, sweeping them into the sea. Grant and Hume get their new life together at the fade-out–a far cry from the ending of the novel that saw Kells and his lady dead in a spectacular car crash. But truthfully, the film was brief enough, and entertaining enough that it would be churlish to deride it. “Gambling Ship” is a lesser Thirties crime movie to be sure, but one that certainly deserves to be better known.