Thursday 9 September 2010

Corsair (1931)

Director: Roland West
Stars: Chester Morris and Alison Loyd

Corsair was the last film directed by Roland West, a groundbreaking early American filmmaker who was on a serious roll after The Bat Whispers, one of my favourite precodes, even when not shown in its full 70mm glory. The star, as in all three of West's sound films, was Chester Morris, one of the sadly forgotten stars of the early years of sound. Playing opposite him is the tragic Thelma Todd, the big question mark over West's head. Their relationship was a volatile one from the moment they met on a yachting trip to Catalina Island in 1930. They became not just lovers but business partners, running Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Café with West's estranged wife, Jewel Carmen. In 1935, Todd was found dead in her car of carbon monoxide poisoning. The car was inside Carmen's garage. We're not ever likely to know now what really went down but the LAPD thought accidental death, a Grand Jury called it suicide and notable evidence said murder.

After this, West never directed again and that's a real shame. It's even possible that this is the last of his films left for me to discover, as most are now lost, so here's to hoping someone has a hidden gem in their attic. Chester Morris is John Hawks, a college football player, American not Association or rugby, and apparently a good one. He won't be playing for long though, not just because he's caked with more make up than he has face but because he's about to fall into the clutches of the luscious but infuriating Alison Corning, or Miss Wall Street Corning as she's introduced to him. Daddy is Stephen Corning of Corning & Co, a Wall Street brokerage firm, and she organises Hawks into a position with the family business, one which he hates with a passion. He's an honourable man and that's not too compatible with Wall Street ethics so when he's fired after a year he tells her, 'I'll never be a sneaking white collar margin clerk again.'
What he takes away from his year at Corning & Co is the knowledge that it doesn't matter how you get your money, it's how much you have at the end of the day. So he sets out to outdo them at their own game through the power of piracy, but with something of a conscience. He chooses to fleece blind only one target, a high profile crook by the name of Big John, and he chooses to sell to only one buyer, Corning. He has a clever modus operandi too, one that apparently keeps him effectively legal: he hijacks stolen goods and sells them on outside of territorial waters, so the risk is with the former owner and the buyer. Surely there's a flaw in that logic but for 1931 it seems to work pretty well and Hawks's Corsair consistently outwits Big John's Queseda. Naturally Big John isn't stupid enough to let it go on indefinitely but that's where the suspense kicks in, as much as we get in a leisurely 75 minute run that only occasionally switches into high gear.

There are some great shots here, as you'd expect from Roland West. One in particular zooms in on Big John's West Indies Warehouses, fades through the wall and dollies down a long corridor of crates like Raiders of the Lost Ark. There's plenty of shadowplay, as anyone who's seen The Bat Whispers would expect, and there are quite a few interesting camera angles. Less impressive technically is the lip synch work which is far from flawless, but dubbing the dialogue in later does at least mean that we hear the whole thing. The lines may not match the lip movements too closely but it's all clear as a bell, especially when compared to most of Hollywood's output from 1931, even when shot on a set. A good part of this film takes place at sea and without the aid of rear projection. I wonder if one of the boats used was West's own Joyita, which had a fascinating history, becoming known at one point as the 'Mary Celeste of the South Pacific'.
The acting is variable. Morris gets to pout a little too often as Hawks and he doesn't get enough opportunity to be the man of action he was so good at being. At least he gets a forceful finalé, however outrageously sexist it happens to be. Alison Corning does deserve that scene, at least, after a whole film spent playing with everyone she possibly can. Todd, under the pseudonym of Alison Loyd, is a self satisfied little devil as Corning, annoying as all get out but subversively delightful nonetheless. In comparison her fiancée Richard Bentinck is only annoying, though to be fair, William Austin did his job right. The ever reliable Frank McHugh gets very little to do, but as he's drunk for most of the film he's welcome wallpaper. Fred Kohler is a shipbound version of W C Fields as Big John, which doesn't help his tough guy routine. Surprisingly the best acting is done by Ned Sparks and Mayo Methot as a worthy couple of accomplices for Hawks.

Roland West deserved a better final movie than this one and he deserved a better run in the era of sound films. He only left us three of those, this one being much better than 1929's Alibi but not a patch on 1930's The Bat Whispers, three very different films with very different lead roles for Chester Morris. After this one Morris went on to a declining but still fascinating career in film while West retired to concentrate on Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Café. After her death in 1935, he went into seclusion and the event overshadowed his legacy for decades. He never returned to the film industry, leaving this his last hurrah. With only fourteen films as a director, the last ten of which he also wrote and five of which he produced, he was hardly prolific. A majority of these are lost films so sadly we're left with only a fraction of those few, but it's obvious to anyone who sees these pictures that he was a huge talent with a visionary eye who was ahead of his time.

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