52 Before 62 — #50 Little Caesar (1931)

Little Caesar (1931 film poster - Style A).jpgDirected by Mervyn Leroy

Screenplay by  Francis Edward Faragoh and Robert N. Lee, based upon the novel of the same name by W. R. Burnett

Starring Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Rico (Edward G. Robinson) is a criminal with ambition.  Too bad he’s small-timing it out in the sticks, making ends meet robbing gas stations with his partner, Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.).   But a man with his ambition won’t be small-time for long and within the space of the transition from one scene to another, Rico is joining one of the top criminal outfits in Chicago.  His partner Joe comes to the city too, but he puts aside his criminal dreams for dancing shoes.[1]  Because he’s ambitious, and ruthless, Rico rises quickly through the organization, eventually installing himself as boss.  Unfortunately, to rise that quickly you have to step on a lot of toes, which doesn’t end well for the man doing the stepping.

Little Caesar | film by LeRoy [1931] | Britannica

Robinson as Rico

Any good?

Little Caesar is a movie you’ve seen before, probably a dozen times, even if you’ve never actually laid eyes on it specifically.  After all, in the nearly 90 years since it’s release the basic plot elements have gone through countless iterations and appeared in film after film.  The gangster who’ll kill anybody to be top dog?   You saw it in The Godfather, The Departed and The Untouchables.  The ambitious hothead?  Scarface (1983).  The greed?  The unhinged mania?  Also Scarface.  And Carlito’s Way.  And others.

Not that Little Caesar alone is responsible — it shares credit/blame with two other films: Scarface (1931) and The Public Enemy.  In the history of gangster films as we know it, these three exist as ground zero.  And all three made household names of its star: Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar, Paul Muni in Scarface, and James Cagney in The Public Enemy.

But while being ‘first’ is important in foot races and in internet comment sections, it isn’t always an indicator of high quality.  In many instances, it’s merely a marker that the most primitive — and often most anodyne — form of a thing began here.  And in many ways, Little Caesar gives us the most anodyne version of the gangster picture.  It has very little visual style, is saddled with a sameness to the acting that makes most characters feel interchangeable, and is bloodless.  This is fact: for a pre-code[2] gangster movie with more than one shooting, there is nary a drop of blood to be found.  In the end, the film is about the definition of bland and looks like they spent very little money on it getting it in the can.[3]  Nearly every scene takes place indoors, on a set, each of which is lit with even, flat lighting.  Hardly a dollar was spent on set design or atmospherics, such that every room is just as generic as the rest.  Everything about it feels non-descript.

But more than looking cheap, the story feels cheap, almost as if it was made without a complete script.  After all, so much of the story is elided that while the film does clock in at an efficient 78 minutes, it doesn’t feel efficient.  It feels truncated and choppy.

For example, consider the first three scenes of the movie:

1 — Rico and Joe rob the gas station, which is filmed from a great distance away, with only the flash of light from the gunshots to punctuate the scene

2 — Rico and Joe eating at a midnight diner, moping they haven’t made it big

3 — Rico in the big boss’s office in the city, getting in with the gang

Again, those are the first three scenes.  Not the first three sequences, connected up with various other tiny shots or scenes.  No, they are the literal first three scenes.  Other than what you have on the screen, you get nothing else.  You do not see the robbery, or the spoils from it.  You do not see the travel to the big city.  You do not see how Rico manages to get close to the gang.  Literally everything of interest is cut out or left off screen, and we are left to cover the blank area with our imaginations.  In some cases that works well, especially in horror films.  Here, though, it just feels abrupt and choppy and unbelievable.

And yet there is one thing the film does that makes Little Casear incredsibly fascinating to consider, which is whether or not the not-so-coded homosexual subtext was intentional or accidental.  For me, there’s no doubt the subtext was meant to be there.  After all, there’s such a clear sexual energy between Rico and Joe, and Rico and Otero, that you’d be a fool not to see it.  Honestly, you could easily read this film as being about a man (Rico) being driven so crazy when his lover (Joe) rejects him that he is willing to destroy everything about himself in order to avoid letting go.  Even as he himself has taken a new lover from amongst his henchmen (Otero).  This subtext is honestly so foregrounded you’d have to be blind to miss it and it’s a shame the film didn’t have the courage of it’s convictions to go all in on it.  If it had, it would have made a mildly-intriguing film that much more interesting.

That all said, whatever it’s flaws are, Little Caesar did one thing right, which was to introduce the world to Edward G. Robinson.  In Little Caesar Robinson plays Rico as a man distinctly humorless and edgy, who’s been wound so tight so many times he’s always on the verge of explosion.  The nearest comparison in recent years would be Joe Pesci as Tommy Devito in Goodfellas, but even that comparison is not right.  After all, Tommy Devito does have a small sense of humor which Rico very clearly does not.  He’s the kind of guy that if you told him a joke he’d likely shoot you instead of laugh, simply because he doesn’t know how to do anything else.

Brock Baker on Twitter: "Every time I think about making content ...Either way, Robinson is a star here.  Shortcomings of the role aside, he’s magnetic, holds the screen, and even if he doesn’t exactly give a performance that melds well with contemporary expectations of movie acting, it’s certainly watchable.  Plus, it was in this film that Robinson gave us the stereotype of the hard-bitten, cigar-chomping gangster with the five o’clock shadow and the hair-trigger sneering, “See!”

It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) | IndustryCentral

Ernie Adams (white hat center-left)

It’s A Wonderful Life

Look quick and you’ll spot Ernie Adams in the background of Little Caesar, during the early-ish heist scene that results in the crime commissioner’s death .  When watching this movie I saw that gaunt, hangdog face pass by and immediately said, “I know that dude!”  It took no time at all to pop over to the IMDB and see why I knew him.

Turns out, Adams is also front-and-center in the white hat in the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan during the run-on-the-bank scene in It’s A Wonderful Life.  While he’s uncredited in both films, you know who he is because Geortge Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) refers directly to him, saying,

“Here, Ed. You know, you remember last year when things weren’t going so well,you couldn’t make your payments.  You didn’t lose your house, did you?  Do you think Potter would have let you keep it?”

Adams is appropriately shamed by being called out like this — it has to be a violation of the man’s privacy to publicly disclose his payment history in this way — and he provides a nice, memorable touch to the scene, even as he gets no lines.  But, in a career that stretched into 460 credits — which were mostly uncredited — playing a named character, even for a second, has got to be a win.

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[1] This is not a joke — a desire to be a professional dancer is Joe’s literal truth.

[2] In other words, the film was made before the Hollywood Production Code was being enforced by the Will Hays, which set rules governing what should, and should not, be shown on film.

[3] This was probably true, as Little Caesar was one of 30 films First National Produced for release in 1931, and one of 60 that Warner Brothers distributed the same year.

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