Little Caesar was the first of the “trinity” of early genre-setting and for the lead actors, career-making gangster movies (the other two being Public Enemy and Scarface). I first watched Little Caesar before I knew what a Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was, didn’t know from a Glenda Farrell and only vaguely familiar with Edward G. Robinson, and approached with a sort of reverence for it as “the really old gangster film that started it all.” Watching it now I was more able to see its flaws and put it in context with gangster films of that era that I’ve seen since, and liked better. You can certainly appreciate the impact of those first attempts to depict more of the real urban world, mainly the messy problems and people prohibition had created. It was grittier than audiences might have been used to, but obviously it’s still fantasy, and then as now, Hollywood tried to have it both ways by tacking on a finger-wagging warning about the awful, horrible, no-good, dastardly deeds depicted in the movie, while also glamorizing the gangsters and making them irresistibly cool and compelling. The source novel, W.R Burnett’s first, was informed by his observation of the Chicago mob and connections with the law, and was a pulp sensation quickly snapped up by tinseltown.
For Robinson, relatively new to Hollywood from the Broadway stage, the Al Capone-alike Rico was a star turn, and he played it like a vain actor who craves maximum impact and good reviews. He was perfect for a grasping little Napoleonic dictator, and for such a short, compact film gave a full and pretty deep and enigmatic Rico; if you doubt it look at both the impact of his performance on the genre, and all the speculation still going on after more than 80 years, at whether Joe is the true object of Rico’s affection, or if Rico’s even capable of feelings other than self-love and ambition. Robinson is good at emulating whatever Rico admires or covets in the next step of his gangster evolution, studying, then adopting the behavior and mannerisms of whoever is his next target or idol. It gives him a mercurial, unknowable quality, as if there’s nothing more to him than pure ambition. Robinson just glows when he conveys the childlike joy and thrill of his ascent, the attention he gets and the attendant finery. Just look at him admiring his derby hat, his gold pocket watch, the accolades (that he doesn’t realize are just rote sycophantic gestures), his tux in the mirror (where he’s cleverly framed and gazed upon like a picture on the wall), and the jewelry of those he’s about to supplant. When he’s first shot he’s just bought up all the newspapers touting his new status in the underworld, and he’s admiring his watch again. It foretells the flaw that will doom him; it’s that vanity that finally gets him, luring him from hiding, out to his ambush.
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. got the role of Joe, and then kind of lost it, because director Mervyn LeRoy wasn’t too thrilled about that pick by Warners. He thought Fairbanks too slick and suave, which he was (and I say this as a huge Fairbanks fan). As he mulled and searched for an alternative, LeRoy found himself gobsmacked by an actor he caught on stage by the name of Clark Gable. The director wanted just that virile, brutal, manly-man type for the role, and the girl accompanying LeRoy confirmed, as an objective viewer, that Clark was indeed “exciting.” Gable got as far as a screen test but Darryl Zanuck and Jack Warner just couldn’t see past Gable’s giant ears, and not only nixed him for the part but passed up the chance to sign him to a contract. So Fairbanks got the role. As much as I love Fairbanks (did I mention I’m a fan?), here he’s just a tad stiff and mannered, which I suppose works well enough for the role of an dapper dancer. He certainly looks more fabulous in a tux, and does a fine job being single-minded and decent, kind of oblivious to anything beyond dancing and Glenda, and sinking into an instant and visible depression when called upon to get involved with criminal activity. When Fairbanks first expresses a desire to dance, a disgusted Robinson asks condescendingly where that will get him, and in the end he gets his answer; it gets him on the huge billboard ad “dancing, laughing” from above, with his girl, as Robinson’s dying alone.
The film moves amazingly fast, almost too fast at times, just touch and go on some key moments. The character introductions are done with comic strip efficiency, but there are some nice, active shots, such as the camera peering through parted curtains or capturing poor, late repentant Tony (William Collier Jr) getting gunned down on the church steps on his way to confession. For Mervyn LeRoy Little Caesar was a massive boost, kicking him up to a higher tier of director, and Mother of mercy, it may have been the end of Rico, but it was just the beginning of a long line of glamorous and doomed gangster characters ranging from gold-hearted to ghastly. What was then fresh and shocking may now seem tired, an overly familiar barebones frame; still, if you’re like me and love gangsters and precodes, you can’t help but enjoy Little Caesar the way you’d admire and pay respect to a Model T but prefer the Mustang.
This is my part of the discussion of LITTLE CAESAR hosted by LAURA’S MISC MUSINGS, and one of her monthly movies to watch in 2013 — click here to read her post and links to others…