Little Caesar (1931)
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
78 min.; U.S.A.; Black and White; Mono
I'm one-hundred-twenty-three pages into W.R. Burnett's 1929 gangster novel, Little Caesar. It's great; full of era slang, crime action and mugs tougher than anyone this side of Satriales Pork Store. I hunted down a now-tea-stained Literary Guild of America first edition hardcover copy from 1929 because I'm that sort of history geek and happen like that old musty book smell. Anyway, unburdened by psychological profiles or examinations of the social ills influencing the gangsters' criminal activities it reads very, very quickly. This streamlined approach to the subject of gangsterism extends to First National Pictures' (actually a Warner Bros. production since they acquired control of First National in the late 20s) screen adaptation of the novel.
|Beat it||Leave immediately|
Little Caesar (1931) tells the story of Caesar Enrico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson), alias Rico, alias Little Caesar, a small-time rural hood who desires to "be somebody" like the urban gangsters he reads about in the newspapers. After robbing and killing a gas station attendant Rico travels to Chicago where his single-minded determination puts his ambitions to be a mob boss on the fast track, but his bloodthirsty predilection for violence brings a police crackdown on the whole crime syndicate. Rico is completely self-infatuated; he's concerned only with "himself, his hair and his gun." He has the savvy to move in when a rival boss is weak, but is too dim to understand the full consequences of his actions (he kills the crime commissioner of all people) or to conceive of any way to maintain the status and power he craves except by cowardly demanding things from behind a gun barrel. Complicating matters is Rico's longtime friend and partner Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) who suddenly wants out of the rackets. Rico's physical opposite, tall handsome Joe, alias Gentleman Joe, is a "front man," meaning he sets up Rico's heists from the inside. But, Massara is also a talented dancer; he meets and falls for his latest dance partner, Olga Stassoff (Glenda Farrell), and decides to pursue a legitimate path to success with her in show business. This is a problem for Rico, who by this time is running the whole north side rackets but can't trust anyone to be loyal to him except Joe. Rico's only recourse is violence (his motto is "shoot first and argue afterwards") so he threatens Olga's life, and Joe's too, as a means to convince Joe to stick around. Ultimately, Rico's dependence on force as a means to an end, his over-riding concern with his public status and reputation, and his inability to outsmart tenacious police Sergeant Flaherty (Thomas Jackson) result in his downfall.
Gangster movies weren't new in 1931. Audiences had seen gangsters on the screen since at least Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). But, in the late 1920s and early 30s a surge of gangster films poured out of Hollywood. The arrival of sound pictures deserves some of the credit because the gangsters' snearing slang (or Hollywood's approximation of it) and the tools of the trade—automatic weapons and the screeching tires of getaway cars—could finally be heard. Cool sounding stuff for sure, but the growing power of gangsters in urban areas and an increase in the public's awarness of them through newspapers, novels, and plays probably influenced the increase in gangster films too. Little Caesar was a successful book chosen by the Literary Guild of America as it selection of the month for June 1929. Stage plays like The Up and Up (1930) centered around gambling, the telephone bookmaking racket, and the speakeasy. Movies like Underworld (1927), The Racket (1928), The Squealer (1930), The Pay-Off (1930), Night Ride and The Widow From Chicago (both starring Edward G. Robinson in 1930) all feature gangsters. Then came Warner's one-two punch of Little Caesar (1931), and three months later, The Public Enemy (1931); these pictures, along with Howard Hughes' Scarface (1932) codified the gangster picture as a new subgenre of the crime film. OK, so gangsters were getting a lot of attention by the end of the 20s but, what exactly were they doing and why was it so fascinating?
Besides committing various petty crimes gangsters operated in urban areas through the growth of what is termed "rackets." These days rackets might refer to any number of criminal activities, but in the 20s and 30s a racket usually referred to one crime, extortion. How did extortion work? A gang operating in your neighborhood might suddenly appear at your place of business and charge you a fee for something called "protection." If you refuse to pay up they'll burn or bomb your business, beat or even murder you. The police may not help you because part of the money exacted from extortion goes to pay them off (about one third of notorious Chicago mobster Al Capone's earnings was paid out in graft to control police and the courts, and stall any political action from interfering with his underworld activity).1
New and much more lucrative opportunites for crime opened up after January 1920, when the Volstead Act implemented the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. As John Gunther writes in his history, Inside U.S.A., "gangs branched out into gambling, road houses, and the labor movement. But, the great flood of cash came from prohibition."2 Prohibition outlawed nearly all commercial production and distribution of alcoholic beverages. It was an attempt by progressives, the Anti--Saloon League, reformers, and members of the business community to use the law to change the personal habits of Americans. By 1931, after a decade of the country going dry, prohibition looked more and more like a disaster. The federal government passed laws to enforce national prohibition, but failed to fund many of them which threw the responsibility for enforcement on state and local authorities, many of whom either didn't agree with the law or were willing to look the other way. Drinking became fashionable among the wealthy and the middle class even as overall drinking was reduced. Bootleggers supplied smuggled and illegally manufactured alcohol to the thirsty public, making nearly $2 billion a year in the process. Major Maurice Cambell, prohibition administrator for New York, claimed that the city was "wetter than before the dry law" and that 90% of the local crime could be traced to the 32,000 speakeasies operating in the city. Even if that percentage is an exaggeration, the sheer number of speakeasies attests to the fact that prohibition, intended to stamp out alcoholism, keep men away from perceived "evils" found in traditional social institutions like saloons, promote better health, and guarantee safer working conditions instead opened the door to widespread law breaking. Honest, hard-working Americans who might never have considered doing anything illegal before were openly and regularly breaking what many considered a silly law. Meanwhile, gangsters with political connections and police on the payroll vied to control the flow of bootleg alchohol in the big cities, becoming rich and more powerful in the process (Al Capone controlled a $60 million a year operation in Chicago, for example). Meanwhile, as the potential for cash increased so too did the risks; some urban streets became venues for mob violence; Chicago alone saw five hundred gang-related murders by 1929. Some of the public became fascinated by these hoodlums, especially after the 1929 Stock Market Crash, when the gangsters seemed to be among the few successfully overcoming the hard times of the Depression. The press fueled that fascination by regularly reporting on underworld figures and their activities. For example, a search for "gangster" in the New York Times for the year 1930 results in over 700 articles. Hollywood had the savvy to try and cash in on these current events and so gangster pictures filled movies screens.
Prohibition, extortion, crooked political figures may provide a social/political backdrop to the story of Rico Bandello and his ilk but these issues are never addressed in the book or in the film. Little Caesar never gets mired in a moral argument nor tries to explain the causes or expose the operations of gangsterism. Francis Faragoh's and Robert Lee's Academy Award nominated screenplay doesn't tell the story of criminal activity from the public's perspective, but from Rico's point of view. In this way, the picture avoids becoming a social problem film like, say, A Corner in Wheat (1909), Traffic in Souls (1913), The Wet Parade (1932), or I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). The complete focus on Rico Bandello's drive to the top of the underworld transformes the role of the gangster from that seen in previous movies. He's not the antagonist working against the goals of the hero(es) of the story or viewed simply as a social ill that needs to be illuminated, examined and corrected, but rather, as Robert Warshow writes in his essay on the topic, the film treats the gangster as a tragic hero.3 Rico, the vicious mob killer, is the protagonist of the picture, and the audience is therefore invested in the success or failure of a villain. This twisting of the classic Hollywood style, the movie's streamlined dynamism, and the focus on the gangster as a human being and not a stage-play heavy are all derived from W.R. Burnett's novel. In an interview, Burnett claimed credit for the transformation of perspective discussed above, "ultimately, what made Little Caesar the smack in the face it was, was the fact that it was the world seen through the eyes of the gangster. It's commonplace now, but it had never been done before then."4 It's very difficult to prove Burnett's claim that the style of Little Caesar had never been attempted previously but, The Public Enemy (1931), Scarface (1932), The Godfather (1972), Goodfellas (1990), The Sopranos and many other gangster pictures subsequent to this one do attest to the style's longevity on the screen.
Little Caesar owes much of its success to the often imitated tougher-than-you'll-ever-be performance of star Edward G. Robinson (real name was Emanuel Goldenberg), a veteran of both stage and screen. Robinson emmigrated to the United States from Rumania with his family when he was ten years old. He lived in New York's lower East side, attended public schools, and began acting on the stage in high school. He acted in productions at City College of New York after enrolling there in 1910. Two years later he was awarded with a scholarship to attend the Sargent School aka The Academy of Dramatic Arts; from there began working on and off Broadway. Though initially a conscientious objector he enlisted in the Navy when the United States entered World War I but turned down an offer to work for the Secret Service. After the war he tried his hand in a silent picture titled Fields of Glory but didn't like the experience and was ultimately cut from the film anyway. He had a somewhat better time making The Bright Shawl (1923) with Dorothy Gish in Cuba, but silent pictures circumscribed his versatile voice. The stage was his true love; he spent the next few years expanding his talents in Peer Gynt, and The Adding Machine and other plays. His unusual looks, compact build, and ability to switch between accents allowed him to play roles that varied in both age and ethnicity. One dramatic critic praised him as "the most versatile actor I have seen on the New York stage." In 1928, he became a full-fledged star of the stage playing a Chicago gangster in The Racket, a performance that was seen by his future employer Jack Warner and future director Mervyn LeRoy when the play hit Los Angeles. By that time prohibition fueled organized crime to such heights in urban areas that newspapers carried stories about the mob figures daily and Paramount enticed Robinson to take another shot at the movies playing a gangster in the part-talkie drama, The Hole in the Wall (1929). Universal cast him as gangster Tony Garotta in Night Ride (1930), the story of a reporter literally taken for a ride by a hunted criminal, and gang boss Cobra Collins in Outside the Law (1930). MGM also came calling, casting Robinson in A Lady to Love (1930) and then making him a million dollar contract offer. Unwilling to give up his stage career entirely Robinson played the part, but turned the offer down. Hal Wallis approached him on behalf of Warners Bros. who were willing to give Robinson time off each year to continue his beloved stage career; Robinson signed a four (later revised to seven) picture deal. His first film under the new contract was a lightweight crime drama The Widow from Chicago (1930). Robinson was preparing to take Warners up on his option to return to the stage when they offered him a role in the upcoming screen adaptation of Little Caesar.
Little Caesar was a box office hit; there are reports of huge crowds and windows broken from people rushing to get in to see it at Warner Bros. Strand Theatre. The film earned over $750,000, not record-breaking compared to the big hits of the silent period, but in the slump of the Depression quite impressive.5 Seventy-six years after its release it's still great fun to watch these mobsters acting so tough. Just listen to Edward G. enunciate "oh yeah?" and "your gettin' so you can dish it out, but you can't take it no more." I love that! Gangster films still owe great a debt to that gat-blasting, wry mouthed miscreant named Little Caesar for helping to codify one of the greatest guilty-pleasure genres of them all.
1. John Gunther, Inside U.S.A. (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1947), 379-381. Gunther, a Chicago native and reporter during the 20s also notes that many police, courts, and political figures "stayed honest to the end."
2. Ibid, 381.
3. Robert Warshow, "The Gangster as Tragic Hero," The Partisan Review (February 1948).
4. Pat MCGilligan, Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood's Golden Age (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982), 57 found in Jonathan Munby, Pulblic Enemies Public Heroes (Chicago: Universtiy of Chicago Press, 1999), 47.
5. H. Mark Glancy, Warner Bros film grosses, 1921-51: the William Schaefer ledger - Warner Bros. Inc.; Jack Warner's executive secretary.
Robert A. Divinve, et al., America Past and Present (New York: Pearson Longman, 2005).
Alan Gansberg, Little Caesar: A Biography of Edward G. Robinson (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2004).
The Chicago Tribune.
The New York Times.