Thoughts From The Music(al) Man (2021) on… Little Caesar (1931)

Well, we’ve looked into a few gangster films earlier this year (mainly during my month-long celebration of actor James Cagney), but we’re back for another gangster classic, the 1931 film Little Caesar starring Edward G. Robinson and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

Coming Up Shorts! with… The Hard Guy (1930)

(Available as an extra on the Little Caesar Blu-ray from Warner Home Video)

(Length: 6 minutes, 28 seconds)

In the Depression, Guy (Spencer Tracy) and his wife Ellen (Katharine Alexander) wonder how they will be able to afford food for their sick daughter. With him reading about crimes in the news, his wife wonders if he may resort to that when she finds a gun in his coat pocket. It’s an interesting short, mainly appealing for an early look at Spencer Tracy as he was trying to break into the movies. Some of the acting is a little stiff (not surprised considering when it was made), but Spencer Tracy shows enough promise of what is to come to make this at least interesting. Apart from him, it’s not otherwise memorable.

Coming Up Shorts! with… Lady, Play Your Mandolin! (1931)

(Available as an extra on the Little Caesar Blu-ray from Warner Home Video)

(Length: 7 minutes, 17 seconds)

Foxy comes to a Mexican café, where everybody is singing “Lady, Play Your Mandolin.” This short was the first in Warner’s “Merrie Melodies” series of animated shorts, in an attempt to showcase the title song. There really isn’t much of a plot here, just the music (with a few gags here and there). It’s not that memorable (nor, quite frankly, is the song), and, given that it features the Mickey Mouse-esque Foxy (and his requisite lady fox), it doesn’t come off as well as the more original Disney cartoons of the era.

And Now For The Main Feature…

Small town crooks Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) and his friend Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) have just gotten away with robbing a gas station. Rico dreams of doing bigger things, and he decides they will both go to Chicago. In Chicago, there are two rival gangs, one led by Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields) and the other led by Little Arnie Lorch (Maurice Black). They both answer to Pete Montana (Ralph Ince), who answers to Big Boy (Sidney Blackmer). Rico joins up with Sam Vettori’s gang, and Joe becomes half of a dance team with Olga Stassoff (Glenda Farrell) (who becomes his girlfriend) at the Bronze Peacock nightclub owned by Little Arnie. Olga slowly starts trying to influence Joe to get out of the gang life, but he resists. Sam Vettori decides to have his men rob the Bronze Peacock on New Year’s Eve, and they decide to use Joe as an inside man. Of course, Big Boy has sent word to all the men to avoid killing due to the tough new crime commissioner breathing down their necks. The robbery almost goes right, except the crime commissioner walked in on them committing the crime, and Rico decided to take a shot at him. They get away successfully (although Joe, who witnessed the killing, is now starting to hesitate about staying in the gang). Policeman Sergeant Flaherty (Thomas E. Jackson) comes to Sam Vettori’s place looking for information, but doesn’t find anything. Rico starts believing that Sam Vettori is getting too soft to be in charge, and leads the other men in a successful mutiny. Little Arnie feels that Rico is getting too big for his own britches, and tries to have him bumped off. When Little Arnie’s men fail, Rico comes calling, and tells him to get out of town or else (he chooses to get out of town). Rico is called in to meet with Big Boy himself, who decides to give him the territory that Pete Montana had been in charge of. Things are starting to look good for Rico. However, his old friend Joe is quickly becoming a liability, and he needs to do something about it. Will Joe be able to convince his friend to let him out of the gang, or will things end badly for one (or both) of them?

Little Caesar was adapted from the novel of the same name by William R. Burnett. Several characters and events in the movie were patterned on real-life people and events, with Rico in particular being based on famous gangster Al Capone. Actor Clark Gable was considered at one point for one of the leads in the movie (although which role he was in consideration for varies depending on the source), but he was turned down. Edward G. Robinson (who had actually played a gangster onstage and in one previous movie) was considered for the role of Rico’s “yes man” Otero (who would be played in the movie by George E. Stone) before producer Hal Wallis decided he would be perfect as Rico. Of course, off-camera, Robinson was far different from the character he portrayed onscreen, with a particular aversion to gunfire which forced them to tape up his eyelids to keep him from messing up the takes when he pulled the trigger. While not the first gangster film, it proved popular enough that Robinson became typecast as a gangster for a time, and pushed Warner Brothers to focus on the genre (helped by the success that same year of Cagney’s The Public Enemy).

Like some of the other gangster movies that I’ve seen this year, this was my first time seeing Little Caesar, and I have to say that I enjoyed it quite a bit! Like James Cagney in The Public Enemy, Edward G. Robinson did indeed carry the film with quite a wonderful performance as a conceited, power-hungry killer. It was mesmerizing watching him as he slowly wormed his way into the affections of the other men, all the while making his leaders look “soft” enough that he could take over. I’ve seen some say that the acting in this movie is a bit wooden, and while I can’t completely disagree, I think it’s at least better overall than in The Public Enemy, with Robinson receiving better support from the other members of the cast. I admit that I found the banquet scene with all the gang members quite memorable (with that scene being based on an actual party held in honor of gangsters Dion “Deanie” O’Bannion and Samuel J. “Nails” Morton). Not going to lie, that scene made me think of the opening scene in Robin And The 7 Hoods (I know, that film was made later and was probably spoofing this scene, helped by the presence of Robinson himself, but I’ve seen that movie many times over the years, versus once for Little Caesar at the moment). The ending itself is also quite haunting (although you can probably predict it coming essentially from the start of the film with the intertitle quoting Matthew 26:52). It’s not a perfect film by any means, but, like I said, Robinson carries the film quite well (and I can certainly understand why he got typecast for a while after this one). Certainly worth recommending!

This movie is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video, either individually or as part of the four film Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics.

Film Length: 1 hour, 19 minutes

My Rating: 8/10

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List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections

Edward G. Robinson – The Sea Wolf (1941)

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. – Having Wonderful Time (1938)

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