Based on the novel by W.R. Burnett (who later contributed to the script of Scarface a year later), Little Caesar is a classic crime drama patterned after dapper thug Al Capone, a small-time hood whose tactics of brutality ensured he would rise in power, eventually commanding his own far-reaching crime syndicate. Unlike Capone, Little Caesar’s Rico (Edward G. Robinson) falls from his royal chaise and meets justice with terminal ignominiousness.
Part of a wave of crime films ‘torn from contemporary headlines,’ Little Caesar was also pre-Code, which meant language and realism were left raw and racy – elements that make this early sound production feel surprising modern.
The foremost reason the film remains a classic is Robinson’s breakthrough performance, which has endured 80 years in spite of parodies, and being satirized in countless spoofs and cartoons. There may be no humanity to Rico, but he’s a thug with insecurities, desires, and a giant ego which Robinson conveys through small gestures, intonations, and body language.
In real life Robinson was an astute, refined intellectual, an art collector, and a wonderfully articulate actor adept at many stage and screen roles, yet he was able to portray a primal, intense little monster with such power that it’s easy to see why the execs at Warner Bros. realized they had a major star for a wave of gangster films.
Little Caesar is also built around the classic genre template of a thug’s rise through the ranks, and the script briskly covers the villain’s chronology, balanced by a best friend – Joe Massara (played quite suavely by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), a character drawn from former dancer George Raft - who attempts to distance himself from a life of crime and establish his own career as a nightclub dancer. There’s also a once-loyal gang member whose moral enlightening proves fatal; and the dogged copper who keeps rattling Rico’s cage until it pays off by wreaking havoc on his nerves and self-confidence.
There are several striking similarities between Little Caesar and Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987) – particularly the fete scene for Rico / Al Capone’s top position in the syndicate, and grand speeches of loyalty – but the former film features a richer characterization of crooks and their own internal frictions from jealousy, obsession, and class struggles. Moreover, Rico may dress in fine clothes, but he lacks that balance of sophistication and control which have kept his peers safe from the law.
Mervyn LeRoy’s direction is taut, but the film’s tight pacing and short running time is also reflective of the studio’s in-house style of docu-drama filmmaking, leaving little fat and unnecessary, indulgent tangents in the final film edit. Every shot is beautifully composed, and the set design frames characters in fancy Art Deco sets like the Bronze Peacock nightclub.
LeRoy’s other crime dramas include I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and Johnny Eager (1941). Fairbanks never became associated with gangster films, but he appeared in a few crime-themed films, including The Life of Jimmy Dolan and The Narrow Corner (both 1933).
Robinson managed to convince the studio to humanize his next villain / Rico knock-off in Smart Money (also made in 1931), but he endured affair share of crime films before working his way into period dramas. As much as he disliked being typecast, the actor did revisit Rico once again in the character of Johnny Rocco in John Huston’s gripping drama Key Largo (1948), one of his most emotionally sadistic roles.
As with other classic film DVDs in this wave, Warner Home Video includes the Leonard Maltin hosted ‘Warner Night at the Movies,’ which comes with trailers for Robinson’s newspaper drama Five Star Final (1931) and Little Caesar; a hysterical Hearst newsreel in which ex-Follies hoofer “Kiki” Roberts reads from cue cards in a coached interview about the murder of her dead beau “Legs” Diamond, and tells all the girls of America to ‘Obey your parents, and live good clean lives’ before hugging and kissing her mumsy on cue; and the musical cartoon “Lady, Play Your Mandolin! starring the studio’s Mickey Mouse clone Foxy (who resembles a spade-eared mouse than a fox) in his film debut.
The real rarity among the extras: a baby-faced Spencer Tracy in his third film role, the 1930 short-short drama The Hard Guy, written by Betty Ross and directed by Arthur Hurley.
In the 6 mins. short, Tracy plays an unemployed father. After ranting about ‘hard-boiled’ social issues to his wife (Katharine Alexander) and fixing his nasal & squeaky-voiced daughter a Bromo-Seltzer (‘Listen to her fizz!’), he walks out of the apartment with his old army coat and revolver. Outside, two street cops discuss a recent robbery, and then Tracy returns with some badly needed goods (food, a dead chicken, and a dollie). Did he steal them? Did he resort to becoming part of the problem instead of the solution? Only the finale reveals the truth…
Richard Jewell’s audio commentary for Little Caesar is first rate, and provides a finely detailed production history of the film, including cast bios, the studio’s crime film wave, and the many social and true life issues reflected in this pioneering work that defined the parameters of the genre, and influenced criminals by codifying fashionable stereotypes and lifestyles. Also highlighted is the evil Production Code, which mandated the studio tacking on a pompous forward (basically a text crawl with music) to ensure the film could be release after 1934 as an early filmic lesson in moral turpitude. (Ahem.)
Finally, a 2005 featurette condenses some of the commentary facts and adds further period details of prohibition, Al Capone, and the crime genre with comments from historians, and filmmaker Martin Scorsese.
This title is available separately or as part of the 4-film set TCM Greatest Gangster Films, which includes Little Caesar (1931), Smart Money (1931), The Public Enemy (1930), and The Roaring Twenties (1939).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan