This is the movie that started it all.
At least that’s the conventional wisdom among movie buffs and film critics who track the gangster genre.
Little Caesar—or more to the point, Edward G. Robinson’s portrayal of the title character—churned new cinematic ground, creating a film type that has been matched in longevity and popularity only by the Western and the romantic comedy.
You have to wonder if this film—with a storyline that is somewhat melodramatic and concessions to the censorship standards of the day—would have had the same impact had someone other than Robinson been tapped for the lead.
But that’s like asking what Casablanca would have been like without Bogey or The Godfather without Brando.
In a review after the film opened, a critic in the New York Times wrote that “Little Caesar [the character] becomes at Robinson’s hands a figure out of a Greek tragedy, a cold, ignorant, merciless killer, driven on and on by an insatiable lust for power, the plaything of a force that is greater than himself.”
Years later, in an essay that appeared in a gangster film encyclopedia, Phil Hardy wrote that Little Caesar (the movie) “owes almost everything to Robinson’s performance as a strutting bantam with a superman complex and paranoia to match.”
Both critiques underscore one of the problems that director Mervyn LeRoy and screenwriter W. R. Burnett (who authored the novel on which the movie is based) had to deal with—censorship. There was a production code for the movie industry in the 1930s stipulating that movies were not to lower moral standards or celebrate or empathize with “crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.”
Lurking in the wings was the Catholic Legion of Decency that was founded in the early 1930s and would establish an even harsher code and rating system (although it turns out, the Catholic Church seemed to be more bent on the evils of sex and debauchery than the crimes of mobsters).
Because of this censorship, filmmakers had to be like the novelists of 18th-century France. They wrote stories in which their central figures engaged in all manner of sin and debauchery, but in order to avoid the wrath of the Church and others, the novelists made sure that their characters came to a terrible end, their punishment meted out by an all-seeing God delivering retribution on Earth with the burning fires of hell waiting in the beyond.
Neither Don Corleone nor his son Michael would have made it to the screen in the 1930s, at least not as they were portrayed almost a half-century later. Despite their faults, their flaws—yes, their sins—there was something to be admired about them.
Caesar Enrico Bandello had to be portrayed in such a way that neither his success nor his bravado could be celebrated. Yet Robinson was able to convey something in the character that would be echoed for generations to come in gangster movies.
Sine qua non was the phrase the Romans used centuries ago—“without which, there is none.”
Enrico Bandello was the prototype for every film gangster who followed.
The tight-fitting three-piece suits, the high-collared shirt and tie, the fedora and the ever-present cigar—Rico brought it all to the big screen. There was also the tough-guy lingo, usually delivered out of the side of the mouth.
Who else could start the word “yeah” with an “n” and get away with it? It was a combination sneer and challenge, the classic Edward G. Robinson “Nnnnyeah!”
The storyline in Little Caesar isn’t spectacular. By today’s standards it’s almost pedestrian. But its mood, the feel, the tension and the wanton violence accurately reflected the underworld of its day and captured the imagination of Depression-era audiences looking for a way to escape their daily grind and misery.
A small-time criminal who wants to make his mark in the big city, Rico—and his partner, Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.)—head for Chicago and the big time.
“Shoot first and argue afterwards,” Rico says in explaining his underworld philosophy to his less-than-enthusiastic partner-in-crime. “This game ain’t for guys that’s soft.”
Rico becomes a “torpedo” for Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields). Vettori’s gang operates under the umbrella of mob boss Diamond Pete Montana (Ralph Ince) and the city’s Big Boy (Sidney Blackmer)—a force in politics, business and the underworld.
Rico is the Sonny Corleone of his time. Ignoring the older mobsters counseling patience, he reaches for his gun to shoot his way out of almost any predicament. One of his victims is the head of the Crime Commission, who gets shot and killed during a New Year’s Eve robbery of the Bronze Peacock, a supper club where the mob and the well-heeled intersect.
Rico’s partner Massara, who wants to go legit, has helped set up the heist over the objections of his girlfriend and dance partner Olga (Glenda Farrell). Did we mention that Joe Massara’s ambition was decidedly different than Rico’s? One wanted to dominate the underworld; the other dreamed of a career as a ballroom dancer.
There is a shooting on the steps of a church, lots of plotting at the Club Palermo and a lavish funeral that foreshadows scenes in Little Italy from The Godfather decades later.
The loyalty between Rico and Joe is tested several times. Neither quite understands where the other is coming from, but their friendship prevails until Olga—“Love, soft stuff,” Rico snarls after learning of their romance—convinces Joe to turn state’s evidence and give up the gang. Even then, Rico can’t bring himself to shoot Joe, who is wounded by one of Rico’s associates.
By that point, Rico has worked his way nearly to the top of the underworld ladder, moving both Vettori and Montana aside and taking aim at the Big Boy himself. But his success quickly comes undone. Arrests, convictions and the execution of Vettori set the stage for the moralistic ending.
On the run, Rico is reduced to living in 15-cents-a-night flophouses. But he comes out of hiding when he reads newspaper articles in which Sergeant Flaherty (Thomas E. Jackson), his longtime law-enforcement nemesis, calls him a coward.
(All the cops, it seems, are Irish, while the gangsters are clearly Italian—a stereotyping in mob movies that to this day still drives the likes of the Sons of Italy wild.)
The final scene and the classic quote from Rico take place in the shadow of a billboard touting the “Tipsy, Topsy, Turvy” dance team of Joe and Olga.
Joe, who turned away from crime, has found success.
Rico, who embraced the gangster life, winds up riddled with bullets.
On screen in the 1930s, it couldn’t have ended any other way.
HIT: The movie was rightly cited for its accurate depiction of the underworld of the 1930s. William Wolf said it concisely in an essay in the 1979 book Landmark Films: “Even when measured against today’s more demanding standards, [Little Caesar] is extremely well made. It is taut, brittle, and involving. The violence crackles with realism and produces a sense of terror with its matter-of-fact killing. A vivid recreation of Chicago’s underworld, it remains one of the best crime films ever made.”
MISS: Early in the movie, Rico and Joe rob a gas station and then walk into an empty diner. Rico moves the clock back to 11:45 p.m. from midnight in order to set an alibi. When the diner owner enters from the kitchen, Joe orders two plates of spaghetti and two cups of coffee.
There isn’t an Italian in America who’s going to order coffee with his spaghetti. And there are very few Italians who will order spaghetti in a diner. And spaghetti isn’t the kind of comfort food you’re looking for around midnight. And when the plates are served (we never actually see what’s on them), there is a shot of Rico cutting whatever is on his plate with a knife and scooping it up with his fork. Italians twirl their spaghetti; there is no need for a knife. Enough said.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “From Little Caesar, W.R. Burnett’s much-admired novel about the rise and fall of a homicidal gang chieftain, comes the truest, most ambitious and most distinguished of all that endless series of gangster photoplays which have been inundating us in recent years. So many pictures celebrating the adventures of America’s most picturesque banditti have been manufactured and their formula has become so stale that it is difficult to believe that a fresh and distinctive work on the subject is currently possible. But Little Caesar, by pushing into the background the usual romantic conventions of the theme and concentrating on characterization rather than on plot, emerges not only as an effective and rather chilling melodrama, but also as what is sometimes described as a Document. Chiefly, though, it is made important by the genuinely brilliant performance that Edward G. Robinson contributes to the title role.”—Richard Watts Jr., New York Herald Tribune
REALITY CHECK: Several scenes and characters in the movie were taken from the Chicago underworld of the day. The banquet “honoring” Rico and an earlier reference to a similar affair stem from a party that received extensive and less-than-favorable press coverage in which gangsters Dion O’Bannion and Sammy “Nails” Morton were feted by their underworld friends. Diamond Pete, the mob boss that Rico usurps, was fashioned after Big Jim Colosimo (who was rubbed out by Al Capone and Johnny Torrio). The Big Boy was believed to be a veiled reference to “Big Bill” Thompson, the corrupt mayor of Chicago during Prohibition.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: While the storyline isn’t memorable, Robinson’s performance is. This is the kind of movie that you pop into the DVD periodically just to watch a scene. Any scene, as long as Robinson is in it.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The Library of Congress, citing the film’s cultural, historical and aesthetic significance, selected Little Caesar for preservation in the National Film Registry. And the American Film Institute in 2008 ranked it ninth on its list of Top 10 all-time gangster movies.
CASTING CALL: Clark Gable was considered for the role of Joe Massara but Jack Warner, the head of the studio, decided the young, untested actor wouldn’t do. Among other things, Warner thought Gable’s ears were too big. That didn’t seem to bother MGM, the studio that signed Gable and turned him into one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
BEST LINE: “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?” Robinson’s last line in the film is one of the most quoted in the gangster genre. Ironically, the original line, in both the screenplay and the novel on which it was based, is: “Mother of God, is this the end of Rico?” Hollywood, ever conscious of the censors, opted to go with what was considered the less offensive line. Such thinking is hard to imagine today when, among other things, some movie websites track the number of “fucks” uttered in contemporary gangster films. (There were, for example, over 200 in Al Pacino’s Scarface.)
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Lots of shooting, but as in all the films of this era, there is little gore and the gunplay is fairly antiseptic.
BODY COUNT: A censor-friendly six.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]