Gambling Ship (1933)
This Paramount feature that has thankfully turned up in a collection of Cary Grant titles on DVD sees the iconic leading man in a role that looking back would seem to have been best suited to the James Cagney’s of the world. Don’t get me wrong, Cary is fine here but as far as early 1930’s gangster flicks go, he isn’t the name we often think of. That distinction is generally reserved for Cagney and Robinson at this point in film history.
As it is Cary is well known underworld figure Ace Corbin who the newspapers are declaring has been acquitted of all charges. He’s a free man and his gang of thugs assume he’ll want to take on his arch rival for control of the criminal world. Among them you’ll notice Marc Lawrence who made a career out of these gangland parts. Cary wants nothing to do with revenge against the film’s antagonist Jack LaRue who it would appear had attempted to frame Cary before our film begins. Cary has decided to rid himself of his underworld connections and catch a train to see where life will lead him. He’s going to go straight and live like normal folks. In his own words he’s going to live “foot loose and fancy free.”
The fact that that quote makes this film in 1933 gives me pause to wonder just how old the phrase is.
It’s onboard the train that Cary will meet and fall for the lovely Benita Hume. She too has a secret past that she is hoping to escape and will find love and comfort in the arms of Cary. Alas their pasts will come back to haunt them both in ironic fashion when they reach the end of the rail line and Glenda Farrell re-enters Benita’s life. I wouldn’t go as far as using the word prostitute but you might. It seems that Glenda and Benita hook men with plenty of jingle in their pockets and bring them out to the shady gambling ship run by Arthur Vinton with ample assistance from Roscoe Karns. The “suckers” will lose the money they bring aboard and in the event they actually score a big payday, they’ll still leave the boat penniless. Don’t be surprised if Karns does double duty as comedy relief, a plot device prevalent in most any early thirties feature no matter the genre.
Vinton and Karns run the Casino Del Mar far enough off shore to get around the legalities set forth by the U.S. lawmakers and within earshot is the gambling ship run by LaRue. When Vinton learns Cary is in town he offers him a piece of the action. At first Cary refuses but like Pacino in The Godfather Part III you can hear him thinking, “Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.” And what do you suppose Cary is going to discover when he sets foot on the Casino Del Mar?
Yes he’ll see his lady love decked to the nines and whooping it up on the casino floor. It won’t be long before he puts it all together, just as she realizes who he is. While romance may still be in the cards for the star crossed lovers, we can be sure that criminal like behavior is going to come to a head over the warring gangsters and who controls the off shore world of gambling.
As this is a precode era title there were two scenes that stood out for me as something that a 1934 and beyond release wouldn’t be featured. One is a shower scene where the shapely Benita can be seen through a shower door while steam is fogging up the windows and the other when Cary and Benita have clearly spent the night together and find themselves enjoying breakfast on the morning after in their ship’s cabin. I have no idea if this film found itself being rereleased in the ensuing years to capitalize on Grant’s growing fame but I have no doubt whatsoever that those two scenes would have been severely cut down to mere seconds.
While I’m no history buff, I’m familiar with the fact that gambling ships existed in the depression era. Apparently they were moored three miles off shore and people would be ferried out to them in what amounted to sea side taxi boats. This film from the directorial tag team of Louis J. Gasnier and Max Marcin uses them as a backdrop to a feature that one might have thought to be a Warner Brothers special pulled from the headlines of any William Randolph Hearst owned newspaper. Hence the Cagney and Robinson comments above.
Cary was still getting his feet wet at this point but it’s clear in the scenes aboard the train as he romances Miss Benita that he was going to be melting ladies hearts worldwide over the next thirty plus years in moving pictures.