US Release Date: 01-09-1931
Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy
- Edward G. Robinson, as
- Little Caesar - Alias 'Rico'
- Douglas Fairbanks Jr., as
- Joe Massara
- Glenda Farrell, as
- Olga Stassoff
- William Collier Jr., as
- Tony Passa
- Sidney Blackmer, as
- Big Boy
- Ralph Ince, as
- Pete Montana
- Thomas E. Jackson, as
- Sergeant Flaherty
- Stanley Fields, as
- Sam Vettori
- Maurice Black as
- Little Arnie Lorch
Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar.
Little Caesar tells the story of the meteoric rise and fall of Caesar Enrico Bandello, or Rico as he is known to his underworld cronies. This is the film that launched the gangster picture craze of the early 1930’s and made Edward G. Robinson an unlikely movie star. It predates The Public Enemy and Scarface and is a seminal example of the genre with many of the trappings that would become clichés in later gangster pictures.
Here are a few examples. There is a scene at a funeral where several wise-guys callously discuss the deceased, a fellow gang member who turned canary and was gunned down on the street before he could sing. There is a scene featuring a gangland banquet in a fancy hotel ballroom and there is the hard-boiled copper that keeps showing up to make smart-ass threatening statements to the mobsters (clearly this movie influenced Billy Wilder’s gangster farce Some Like it Hot). And there is the final dramatic death scene of the anti-hero.
When the movie begins Rico and his pal Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who was given the part over a young actor named Clark Gable because the producers felt Gable’s ears were too big) move to an unnamed big city in America to follow their dreams. Joe wants to be a dancer while Rico has his sights set on conquering the underworld.
On New Year’s Eve Rico pulls a big job and winds up murdering the Crime Commissioner with Joe as a witness. Suddenly Rico is the new player in town. The story then follows Rico’s (later given the moniker Little Caesar) violent rise to the very top of the racketeering business. Of course his fall comes just as quickly. After just over an hour and fifteen minutes he is gunned down behind that billboard and utters his famous last words, “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”
One interesting aspect of Little Caesar is its lack of female characters. While Joe has a girlfriend played by Glenda Farrell, Rico seems to have absolutely no interest in the opposite sex. He does have a very loyal henchman with whom he is quite affectionate but his true love (other than power) seems to be Joe. Even when Joe is about to run out on him the normally ruthless Rico cannot bring himself to shoot his pal.
Mervyn LeRoy keeps the movie clipping along although the violence is neither as plentiful nor as graphic as in later gangster pictures. Edward G. Robinson struts through the movie like a Prohibition era Napoleon. He has charisma to spare and created a truly iconic character in Enrico Bandello. Whenever he’s on the screen it’s impossible to take your eyes off him.
Unfortunately the rest of the cast is not up to snuff. Fairbanks is quite bland and many of the fellow gangsters give amateurish and/or melodramatic performances. In the final analysis none of that matters however. I cannot in good conscience give this historically important picture less than 4 stars.
Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar.
If I were giving stars based on the historical significance of this movie, I would also give it 4, but in good conscience, I can not. Yes, I give it full credit for being a ground breaking gangster film that laid the framework for dozens of gangster films that would come after it. For that it deserves a great deal of credit. There are elements of it that continue to be used in gangster films today. However, it's not a perfect film by any means.
Although it's never explicitly stated, clearly Rico is gay as you hinted at Patrick. The overtones are so strong that I don't think this movie could have been made following the Hays Code. Rico's relationship with his friend Joe is enough to raise suspicions about his sexuality but it is his relationship with Otero that pretty much confirms it. Note the way they are filmed together and you will have no doubts that the filmmakers were deliberately making a statement about Rico. Reportedly the author who wrote the book this film is based on, noticed it also and wrote a complaint about it to the producers.
Robinson is terrific in the lead role, but the rest of the cast is only so-so. Rico is a live wire and I agree with you Patrick that he outshines everyone else when he's onscreen. He's a cocky little rooster outpecking everyone else in the farm yard. It's also impossible to listen to him for long without trying to imitate that distinctive voice of his.
The plot, particularly Joe and Olga's portion of it, is pure and overdone melodrama and the acting matches it. You can also tell that this was a early talkie since, as is common with movies of the period, the camera remains fairly stationary and like a play, each change of location comes with a new scene. It gives the movie a fairly static feel.
Although this was the first time I'd ever seen this movie, I was of course familiar with the very famous last line. Robinson delivers it well and I can see why it is so well remembered. The rest of the movie though, is over rated. Cagney would make better gangster films in just a few short years.
A movie of historical interest, but not a particularly entertaining one apart from Robinson's performance. Perhaps the movie would have been more entertaining if they'd went ahead and admitted that Rico was gay.
Rico and Otero, his right hand man, or left hand man depending on when Rico wants a change.
It is subtle, but Rico is clearly intended to be gay. In the first scene, Joe tells Rico he wants to be a dancer. Rico looks at Joe and states the obvious about their life of crime, "This job isn't for guys who are soft." He is not berating Joe. He says it more out of concern. They move to another town where Joe becomes a dancer at a club. His partner Olga has eyes for him but he seems unsure of his feelings for her. "I want someone like you awfully bad. Do you believe me Olga?"
Rico is clearly upset that Joe spends more time with her than him. "You didn't quit. Nobody ever quit me. You're still in my gang. You got that? I don't care how many fancy skirts you have hanging on to you. That jane's made a softy out of you." The movie never says that Rico and Joe ever had sex but Rico sure acts like a spurned lover. Once Patrick told me that he who yells "faggot" loudest is usually a closet homosexual. When Rico wants Joe back, he says to him, "Now you're getting to be a sissy."
As Scott mentioned, Rico and Otero were clearly intended to be seen as lovers. In one scene Rico is lying in bed when Otero lays down intimately close to him. They each smile at each other. In the next scene, Rico is dressing in a suit, while standing on a table to admire himself in a mirror. Otero stands directly in front of him, straightening the folds in Rico's pants. His face is directly in front of Rico's crotch. He then stands back to admire how good Rico looks, smiling with pride. I do not know if Rico and Joe ever had sex, but I think the movie is clearly saying Rico and Otero have.
As my brothers wrote, Little Caesar is very much of its time. It started the gangster film genre that became quite popular in the 1930s. In what was a precode fashion staple, Glenda Farrell wears dresses where her nipples poke through the fabric. Actresses had to wear brassieres after the Hays code was enforced and would not become noticeable again until Farrah Fawcett's famous poster in the 1970s.
Scott mentioned that the author was upset about the homo erotic overtones. LeRoy added the gay subtext to the story,but he changed the film's most famous line so as to not be offensive to Christians. Rico's last line in the book was, "Mother of God! Is this the end of Rico?" In 1930 it was very much accepted to be homophobic but not blasphemous. Today it is just the opposite.
Photos © Copyright First National Pictures (1931)