Little Caesar: Dated gangster classic
Little Caesar is a good example of a film 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 The Public Enemy, a film that holds up far better cinematically – both technically and aesthetically.
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and adapted by (credited screenwriters) Francis Edward Faragoh and Robert N. Lee from a novel by W.R. Burnett, the 78-minute Little Caesar just limps along. In fact, despite having been nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award, the film is so unsure of its narrative power that, like its silent era cousins, it makes extensive use of intertitles to convey plot points.
That’s due to a general awkwardness that many early talking pictures had. Several scenes make little sense, while the film clanks along in stereotypes. Aside from The Public Enemy and the Paul Muni vehicle Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932), one might also compare Little Caesar to another 1931 release, Fritz Lang’s German-made M, starring Peter Lorre – like Edward G. Robinson, a rather un-movie star-like movie star. In Lang’s film, Lorre 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.
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 (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. He soon takes over as the leader, but while on a job robbing a rival gangster he kills the Crime Czar of the city, thus bringing heat upon all mobsters. Despite having gained the attention of the media and the following of his gang, Rico still longs for the approval of Joe – and is jealous of Olga.
Most of the actors in the film are unnoteworthy, 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 obtuse 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.
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 the Big Boy (Sidney Blackmer), both of whom are several notches above Rico, survive because they keep low profiles – in the world of Big Business, too, the CEOs that 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 and as a result, is doomed.
Now, while nowhere near great cinema, Little Caesar has had an undertow that few films have ever had. Is it mere coincidence that the acronym for the federal Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 is the “RICO Act”?
As for the Warner Bros. DVD, part of a 6-disc WB Gangsters Collection, the print has many more blemishes and flaws than that same company’s The Public Enemy. The extra features are all good, for in a section called Warner Night at the Movies the DVD tries to present Little Caesar as it would have been shown in theaters. Hosted by film critic Leonard Maltin, the segment features cartoons, newsreels, trailers and short subjects from 1931.
The trailer is for another Edward G. Robinson movie, Five Star Final. Then we see a newsreel and a short Spencer Tracy film, The Hard Guy. The cartoon is Lady, Play Your Mandolin!. Additionally, the DVD includes a 1954 foreword to a rerelease of Little Caesar and the featurette Little Caesar: End of Rico, Beginning of the Antihero, which features assorted film experts, including director Martin Scorsese, discussing the film and its impact. There is also the original theatrical trailer for Little Caesar and the 1954 rerelease disclaimer.
The film commentary is provided in workmanlike fashion by film historian Richard B. Jewell. Unlike the best of the genre, Jewell’s comments aren’t scene specific, but he does make some good points, such as that the cop Flaherty – Rico’s nemesis – is less a character within the narrative of the film than the story’s Greek Chorus. Jewell also makes incisive comments about how Rico is basically a dupe (one who thinks that Big Boy’s painting must be expensive because of its gold frame), for he is forever doomed to be longing for what he cannot have, in addition to being a pawn to more cunning characters. To his credit, Jewell puts little stock in the homosexuality angle that some critics chomp on.
All in all, most people will watch Little Caesar with a sense of fascination for its crudity – while wondering how such a film rose 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.
Nonetheless, 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, because when Rico utters his parting line, one almost feels sorry for the little bastard. I said almost. That word is why Little Caesar does, if barely, rise above being mere melodrama, for melodramas never get the viewer involved enough to notice such filigrees, framed in gold or not.
© Dan Schneider
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
Little Caesar (1931)
Director: Mervyn LeRoy.
Screenplay: Francis Edward Faragoh & Robert N. Lee.
From a novel by W.R. Burnett.
Cast: Edward G. Robinson. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Glenda Farrell. Sidney Blackmer. William Collier Jr. Ralph Ince. Stanley Fields. George E. Stone. Thomas E. Jackson.
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio. Film Editing:Ray Curtiss. Art Direction: Anton Grot. Producers (uncredited): Hal B. Wallis & Darryl F. Zanuck.