Little Caesar (1931)
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Glenda Farrell
Synopsis: An aspiring small-town criminal, Caesar “Rico” Bandello relocates to Chicago to hit the big time, accompanied by his buddy, Joe Massara. While Rico makes a name for himself in the underworld, Joe decides to leave the life of crime and ventures into show business…
It had been a long time since I first saw Little Caesar, and I was a little discouraged from watching it again by memories of a painfully slow, unsatisfying trudge through the predictable rise and fall of an immigrant gangster. Well, the story is as predictable as I recall (simply because it has been copied so many times since) and it is slow by modern standards, but it still stands as an entertaining and interesting piece of film history, despite some obvious drawbacks.
Firstly, the drawbacks: the acting varies from the wooden (Thomas Jackson — The Thin Man — as the rugged, honest Irish cop sounds like a six-year-old with learning difficulties reading from a blackboard at times) to the over-the-top — virtually the entire cast are guilty of this at some point, which is understandable as it was made in the early days of sound, but Stanley Fields as Sam Vettori, the mobster usurped by Robinson’s Rico, wins the gold riband: he mugs and grimaces and leers for all he’s worth as he consigns himself to b-movie hell for most of the rest of his career. Douglas Fairbanks Jr makes an insipid leading man, although I suppose the actor can’t really be blamed for that. The role is pretty thankless: when Joe isn’t being pushed around by Rico he’s having his decisions made for him by Olga (Glenda Farrell — I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Prison Break), his girlfriend.
The obvious plus about the film is the performance of Edward G. Robinson (Double Indemnity). It’s over the top by today’s standards, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, and it’s great to watch him snarling his lines at the top of his game. Robinson’s career, at a time when Hollywood thrived on the beauty of its stars, is a triumph of personality over looks, and it couldn’t have got a better start. Mervyn Leroy’s direction is also worthy of mention, especially the robbery at the nightclub which is a kind of montage sequence featuring a series of dissolves which culminate in the murder of an influential police commissioner.
One other thing worth mentioning is the clear implication of Rico’s homosexuality (check out the scene in which Otero simpers as he admires Rico, whose reflection we see in a mirror, swishly modelling his new tuxedo — it’s a scream). Although his sexuality is never overtly mentioned, he never shows an interest in women, and is devotedly followed everywhere by that sidekick Otero — another good performance, from George E. Stone (The Front Page, Some Like it Hot). Although it’s only hinted at, this kind of thing would never have been tolerated a few years later when the Hays code came into full force.
(Reviewed 10th August 2010)