- Little Caesar (1931) movie review: In a star-making portrayal, Edward G. Robinson creates an iconic all-American gangster in Mervyn LeRoy’s classic pre-Code crime drama. But has Little Caesar withstood the test of time?
- Little Caesar was shortlisted in the Academy Awards’ Best Writing, Adaptation (Francis Edward Faragoh & Robert N. Lee) category for the period 1930–31.
Little Caesar movie review: Mervyn LeRoy’s now-creaky gangster classic turned Edward G. Robinson into a major star
Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar is a good example of a movie that is historically important, but that has dated very poorly. Tony Gaudio’s camera work is mediocre, Warner Bros. musical director Erno Rapee’s spare soundtrack is garbled, and the acting is for the most part wooden. Even Edward G. Robinson, who became a star in this role, is good but hardly great.
What makes Little Caesar’s pedestrianism all the more amazing is that just a few months later James Cagney would burst onto the screen with director William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy, a film that holds up far better both technically and aesthetically.
Warners’ 78-minute Little Caesar , for its part, just limps along.
Unsure narrative power
Despite earning a Best Writing, Adaptation, Academy Award nomination for screenwriters Francis Edward Faragoh and Robert N. Lee, Little Caesar – from a 1929 novel by W.R. Burnett – is so unsure of its narrative power that, like its silent era cousins, it makes extensive use of intertitles to convey plot points. In addition, several scenes make little sense and the film gets mired in stereotypes.
Aside from The Public Enemy and Howard Hawks’ 1932 Paul Muni vehicle Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, one might also compare Little Caesar to another 1931 release, Fritz Lang’s German-made M, starring Peter Lorre.
In Lang’s film, Lorre – like Edward G. Robinson, a rather un-movie-star-like movie star – plays a pedophile child killer done in by a trial organized by local gangsters, enraged that his killings have brought the wrath of the cops down upon them. Like The Public Enemy, M is far more realistic in its depictions of crime, criminals, and their motivations. Little Caesar, by contrast, not only forgoes any motivations for its characters but it also ignores the time and place in which events occur, i.e., Prohibition.
Crime and jealousy
The film opens with a gas station robbery that turns into murder because of the itchy trigger-finger of a small-time hood, Caesar Enrico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson), known as Rico. His partner is Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), who longs to become a dancer. Both head to the Big City (never named in the film but obviously patterned after Chicago), where Joe meets Olga (Glenda Farrell), falls in love, and turns his back on Rico.
Rico hooks up with an established gang, the Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields) mob, and soon takes over as the leader. Later on, while on a job robbing a rival gangster, he kills the city’s Crime Czar, thus bringing heat upon all mobsters.
Despite having gained the attention of the media and the following of his gang, Rico still longs for Joe’s approval – and is jealous of Olga.
Most of the actors in Little Caesar are unremarkable, save for the aforementioned Robinson and George E. Stone as Otero.
Otero’s fawning over Rico and Rico’s fawning over Joe have led some critics to construe homosexual motives in these relationships. But it’s quite absurd, as Otero is clearly in hero worship mode over Rico while Rico’s feelings for Joe are clearly that of a lonely man who has had all others abandon him and does not want to lose that last link to his past.
In one well-shot scene, Otero fawns over a tuxedoed Rico while in a mirror we can see Rico’s image next to Otero’s, almost as if he were a midget. Just before the cut, Rico makes a fey gesture, which has been used as “proof” of his character’s homosexuality.
This, however, is just an imbuement of modern biases into a work of art from another culture. Compare it to a similar scene with a tailor in The Public Enemy, where an obvious homosexual is fawning over the James Cagney character. The difference is stark.
‘Capitalism without the blinders’
More cogent is the claim that Little Caesar represents a look at American capitalism without the blinders.
Rico is like many of the Gilded Age thugs who made violence and murder an accepted practice of business. In much the same way that the Rockefellers and Carnegies avoided being publicly seen with blood on their hands, so too do the big movers and shakers of the city’s underworld.
Diamond Pete Montana (Ralph Ince) and Big Boy (Sidney Blackmer), who find themselves several notches above Rico, survive because they keep low profiles. In the world of Big Business, too, the CEOs who stay behind the scenes survive the longest. Rico, on the other hand, does his Al Capone and John Gotti-like best to court the press; as a result, he is doomed.
Little Caesar undertow
Now, while nowhere near great cinema, Little Caesar has had an undertow that few cinema productions have ever had. Is it a mere coincidence that the acronym for the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 is the “RICO Act”?
Yet most people will watch Little Caesar with a sense of fascination for its crudity – while wondering how such a film has risen to classic status. After all, Little Caesar makes even Alfred Hitchcock’s Freudian melodramas look complex.
On the positive side, as mentioned above Edward G. Robinson gives a good performance, even though his character’s actual exposition cannot uphold his legendary status.
In all, Little Caesar is worth a look. Although not nearly as well crafted and stylistically influential as The Public Enemy (after all, it lacked Jimmy Cagney, right?), it must have some power. When Rico utters his parting line, one almost feels sorry for the little bastard.
Little Caesar (1931)
Director: Mervyn LeRoy.
Screenplay: Francis Edward Faragoh & Robert N. Lee (continuity).
From W.R. Burnett’s 1929 novel.
Cast: Edward G. Robinson. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Glenda Farrell. Sidney Blackmer. William Collier Jr. Ralph Ince. Stanley Fields. George E. Stone.
“Little Caesar Movie: Robinson Is Iconic But Dated Gangster” review text © Dan Schneider; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Little Caesar Movie: Robinson Is Iconic But Dated Gangster” is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider’s text currently found in its original form here.
“Little Caesar Movie (1931) Review” endnotes
Edward G. Robinson Little Caesar movie images: Warner Bros.
“Little Caesar Movie: Robinson Is Iconic But Dated Gangster” last updated in September 2021.