CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”
With the 1931 film “Corsair,” Roland West certainly gave the Prohibition-era gangster yarn a twist. Most of its action takes place not on land but on the high-seas where ex-college football star Chester Morris and his wealthy admirer/partner Frank McHugh use an armed ocean-going tugboat to hi-jack the cargos of the bigger, slower rum-runners. There’s more of an accent on adventure than on grit and Morris’ brash young corsair (the name of his ship as well) is certainly treated more sympathetically than the deceitful hoodlum he portrayed in West’s earlier crime drama “Alibi.”
By opening with Morris at the height of his collegiate glory, West establishes him a guy who not adverse to taking risks. But the field is level and he know the rules. After graduation comes the real world, and two years working at a Wall Street brokerage house teaches him that the only rule is: don’t lose out. Fired for refusing to push a particularly questionable Venezuelan oil stock, he soon teams up with old pal McHugh in a particularly audacious scheme. Besides pushing questionable stocks, Morris’ wealthy, silver-haired ex-employer is also the silent partner of one Big John–a major rum-runner. (“Corsair” appeared in the waning years of Prohibition, but one can certainly wonder how many wealthy investor put their money in “the booze biz” at its height.)
Big John (played by bad-guy specialist Fred Kohler at his most obnoxious) initially writes off Morris as an “ama-chore,” but a few hijacked cargoes later finds him having second thoughts. He would be especially miffed to know that Morris is selling the hijacked cargoes to Kohler’s own silent partner, thus making the broker pay twice for the same illegal goods. West toughens up the “boy’s own” aspects of the tale with some hard-edged violence. When Big John’s right-hand man “Fish-Face” discovers that Big John’s secretary (Mayo Methot) is tipping Morris off to John’s embarkation dates, he pretends to agree to forget about it because he’s crazy abut her. Methot no sooner heaves a big sigh of relief than he shoots her. Her partner in the scheme is similarly dispatched by Big John himself. “Corsair” is a pre-Code crime film and one of its big failings is that it allows the completely detestable Big John to walk away at the finale. It’s other failing is a sort of fairy-tale ending in which Morris is reconciled with his former boss–who has no end of respect for him now, seeing what a successful crook he has become–and is offered a plum job by him. He even gets to wed the broker’s high-handed daughter. Compared to the stark realism of “Alibi,” “Corsair” is definitely a light entertainment, not awful by any means, but not awfully good either.