Little Caesar (1931)

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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…

(picture source)

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16 thoughts on “Little Caesar (1931)”

  1. Kristina, I really enjoyed your post! I felt like I could have written some of it as I think we saw the movie in very much the same way, including an uncertainty about the performance of one of our faves, Mr. Fairbanks Jr. 🙂 I like the way you describe what dancing gets Joe!

    It’s fascinating to me that Gable was turned down because of his ears — it’s just not something I tend to ever notice about people anyway, and one would think that Gable’s sheer charisma would have outweighed his *ears*, for goodness sake! But I wonder if Gable could have been too “strong” for Joe, who gets push-pulled around by Rico and Olga? Hmmmm.

    Thanks so much for participating in this month’s discussion! I’m really glad I finally caught up with LITTLE CAESAR for the first time, and I’m loving hearing what everyone else has to say.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    1. Thanks for the idea of doing a watch/ blog-along! I avoided reading your post and the comments til I wrote most of mine so it was funny to see our takes were kind of similar. It’s a little hard to even write about this type of “essential” in an original way anymore and this was a fun opportunity to do that. I totally agree with you about Gable being too strong, I think he wouldn’t have been believable as someone who yearns to dance, or as the weaker character than Rico, you’re right. Amazing to me also is how quickly the conventions here were developed and built upon as the genre went along, only a few years down the road they were almost cliches. Thanks again!

  2. I appreciate Caesar’s place in film history but looking back is always so easy. I am focusing strictly on Robinson here when I say I much prefer his gangster Johnny Rocco in Key Largo. He’s more sure of himself and the acting is more polished and believable. But then, many films and performances are when looking back and comparing them to the new “sound” era films from 29-31. Rico is fun whereas Rocco is believable, terrifying and unpredictable.
    Time allows us the luxury of looking back and picking and choosing what we ourselves prefer as opposed to the impact a film or performance might have had at the time of it’s release. Same can be said of Cagney in Public Enemy or White Heat. I’ll take Cody Jarrett all day long.

    1. agreed, easy for us! just like cars, things that look so primitive now were such important steps, and where would we be today without them, and so forth…some of us were just discussing on twitter about the added element of the transition from silent which took some longer to adjust than others. great points, thanks for them!

  3. I think if anybody who is is a classic film fan and watches Robinson in Little Caesar as their introduction to Robinson you are bound to get the wrong impression of him as an actor. Little Caesar is just an okay film to me. The acting in Little Caesar is just so rough. I agree Robinson in Key Largo is definitley a more polished actor. Sort of makes his character in Little Caesar look like a cartoon in some way.

    I am a huge fan of Robinson and have seen over 65 of his films and counting. He was so much more than a gangster actor. We see him as gentle caring farmer in Our Vines Have Tender Grapes and as a very serious doctor/scientist in Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet. In The Sea Wolf he plays a very evil sea captain. In House Of Strangers a banker. In All My Sons he plays a devious munition’s manufacturer. In A Hole In The Head, he plays Frank Sinatra’s older brother and adds alotta comedic moments to the film.

    The enjoyable thing about Robinson is he not only made serious gangster films but gangster spoofs. Larceny Inc., A Slight Case Of Murder, Brother Orchid and The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse are movie essentials to me. I could go on and on about Eddy G, he was a special person and actor!

  4. My EGR essentials:

    Little Caesar (1931) Five Star Final (1931) Dark Hazard (1934) The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) Barbary Coast (1935) Bullets or Ballots (1936) Kid Galahad (1937) The Last Gangster (1937) A Slight Case of Murder (1938) The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) Blackmail (1939) Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940) Brother Orchid (1940) A Dispatch from Reuter’s (1940) The Sea Wolf (1941) Manpower (1941) Larceny, Inc. (1942) Tales of Manhattan (1942) Mr. Winkle Goes to War (1944) Double Indemnity (1944) The Woman in the Window (1945) Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945) Scarlet Street (1945) The Stranger (1946) The Red House (1947) All My Sons (1948) Key Largo (1948) House of Strangers (1949) The Violent Men (1955) The Ten Commandments (1956) A Hole in the Head (1959) The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

    1. Just to randomly pick one of these many greats, I recently saw A DISPATCH FROM REUTERS, and besides being interesting history, it’s one of the many roles that proves how great EG was at playing all kinds of folks as well as toughs. Where he could be grand as a patriarch or gangster, he also used that when playing a biographical figure, so that you totally believe that regular guy has the potential to be big someday.

  5. How can you go wrong with Dispatch From Reuters? I love these type of films about inventors and just innovation in general. Edison The Man, The Story Of Alexander Graham Bell and The Story of Louis Pasteur are just a few of my all-time favorites in this genre.

    The character actor’s list in Dispatch From Reuters is just endless. Otto Kruger did a real good job in a limited role in this film. Kruger also appeared with EGR in Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, my favorite EGR movie. Eddie Albert is always fun playing a sidekick especially in those Brother Rat/ Ronald Reagan films. The war film, Attack is one of my favorite Eddie Albert flicks. Also, what can you say about Gene Lockhart who always seems to play the baddie character quite well. He was just great with EGR in the classic Sea Wolf as the drunken ship’s doctor and he also costarred with EGR in the classic flick, Blackmail. The marriage proposal by Reuters (EGR) in Dispatch From Reuters was quite unique. I bet it was the only time in movie history we saw a guy ask a gal to marry him via carrier pigeon, lol.

    I am glad to see you like EGR, Kristina. Many bloggers just think Little Caesar is what Eddy G is all about and he is so much more.

    I am glad you liked EGR in Dispatch From Reuters, a very nice film. EGR and Cagney are my two favorites. EGR is just great in so many roles and it seems he is unfairly stigmatized a gangster actor. I just saw him in the 1960 movie, Seven Thieves which I would now add to my growing essentials list of Edward G Robinson.

    1. Those types of biopics, though maybe not 100% accurate, are great because they’re educational along with your entertainment. Another really obscure EGR movie that comes to mind now you mention that, because it has a real interesting historical element is the not bad I LOVED A WOMAN. EGR Not playing anyone particularly known, but against the backdrop of Teddy Roosevelt policies. For sure EGR was so much more than Rico, he made his big splash there and showed what he was capable of. This is the fun of going waaay beyond the basic essentials and into people’s careers, you get to see what they could really do. You’re right, he even had a way of being a romantic softy.

  6. Yeah… Hollywood sure did fudge a lot on their their bio pictures, Kristina. I don’t know if you ever caught Tennessee Johnson with Van Heflin and Lionel Barrymore but I found it to be a hidden gem. In my opinion it is Van Heflin’s signature film. We learn a lot about American History here as we see President Andrew Johnson’s whole life unfold from boyhood to his presidency. Lionel Barrymore plays Johnson’s ruthless adversary and tries to impeach him. The ending is filled with high drama and tension with the impeachment vote going right down to the wire. The movie really isn’t historically accurate but it did prompt me to learn more about Andrew Johnson, the 17th president of the United States. I love history.

    1. I did see that one, though it was a while ago. You’re right, even when the movies were (& are still!) fudged for the sake of drama, if people know that and it can get them interested to check out the real history on their own, then it’s a plus. Van Heflin was another good one for those types of movies.

  7. I just saw Robinson again in the film Two Seconds for like the third time. The emotion that pours from Robinson’s face as he about to face the electric chair is just unmtached. EGR was an incredible actor! I am really proud to have now seen almost 70 EG Robinson films. More people should recognize his greatness.

  8. Just got my hands on Robinson in Silver Dollar, another fine performance of course. Silver is king but then becomes his downfall, a sad ending.

    1. Very interesting, not a movie I’d heard of, but looking at imdb I see based on a true story and egr’s costar Aline macmahon is so good in anything too. Thanks for bringing me another one to discover!

  9. You know what is amazing about the EGR filmography is that the classic movie, The Sea Wolf has never been released on commercial DVD. This is definitely one of EGR’s greatest performances portraying the evil sea captain, Wolf Larsen. A good thread would be about the movies that have been ignored on DVD up to this point in time. You have any films you would like to see on DVD Kristina?

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