Little Caesar (1931)

Plot

Small-time criminals Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) and his friend Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) move to Chicago to seek their fortunes. Rico joins the gang of Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields), while Joe wants to be a dancer. Olga (Glenda Farrell) becomes his dance partner and girlfriend.

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Joe tries to drift away from the gang and its activities, but Rico makes him participate in the robbery of the nightclub where he works. Despite orders from underworld overlord “Big Boy” (Sidney Blackmer) to all his men to avoid bloodshed, Rico guns down crusading crime commissioner Alvin McClure during the robbery, with Joe as an aghast witness.

Rico accuses Sam of becoming soft and seizes control of his organization. Rival boss “Little Arnie” Lorch (Maurice Black) tries to have Rico killed, but Rico is only grazed. He and his gunmen pay Little Arnie a visit, after which Arnie hastily departs for Detroit. The Big Boy eventually gives Rico control of all of Chicago’s Northside.

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Rico becomes concerned that Joe knows too much about him. He warns Joe that he must forget about Olga and join him in a life of crime. Rico threatens to kill both Joe and Olga unless he accedes, but Joe refuses to give in. Olga calls Police Sergeant Flaherty and tells him Joe is ready to talk, just before Rico and his henchman Otero (George E. Stone) come calling. Rico finds, to his surprise, that he is unable to take his friend’s life. When Otero tries to do the job himself, Rico wrestles the gun away from him, though not before Joe is wounded. Hearing the shot, Flaherty and another cop give chase and kill Otero. With information provided by Olga, Flaherty proceeds to crush Rico’s organization.

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Desperate and alone, Rico “retreats to the gutter from which he sprang.” While hiding in a flophouse, he becomes enraged when he learns that Flaherty has called him a coward in the newspaper. He foolishly telephones the cop to announce he is coming for him. The call is traced, and he is gunned down by Flaherty behind a billboard – an advertisement featuring dancers Joe and Olga – and, dying, utters his final words, “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”

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Little Caesar is a 1931 Warner Bros. crime film that tells the story of a hoodlum who ascends the ranks of organized crime until he reaches its upper echelons. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Glenda Farrell. The story was adapted by Francis Edward Faragoh, Robert N. Lee,Robert Lord and Darryl F. Zanuck (uncredited) from the novel of the same name by William R. Burnett. Little Caesar was Robinson’s breakthrough role and immediately made him a major film star.

Often listed as one of the first full-fledged gangster films, Little Caesar continues to be well received by critics.

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It Gets Lonely at the Top

22 September 2005 | by bkoganbing (Buffalo, New York) – See all my reviews

Little Caesar which popularized both the gangster film and Edward G. Robinson is a great study in the criminal mindset and the ruthlessness it takes to get to the top of that world. After all in White Heat look at the epitaph James Cagney gave to his career.

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We meet Robinson and a friend Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in some greasy spoon in the middle of nowhere. Fairbanks wants to go into dancing, but Robinson knows exactly what he wants. He wants to rise to the top of the criminal world. Not for riches or fame, but simply raw naked power. As he says to have a bunch of guys working for you who will do ANYTHING you say. The more men you have doing that, the more powerful you are.

And the film is a study in the rise and fall of Robinson in his chosen field. But the top is a lonely place.

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It’s been said there’s an undercurrent of homosexuality running in Little Caesar between Robinson and Fairbanks by some critics. I’ve never subscribed to that point of view. In doing what he’s doing Robinson essentially cuts himself off from all kind of human contact. His only other attachment is the fawning George E. Stone from his gang.

Robinson needs Fairbanks as a friend and confidante. We all need that, someone we can unbend with and show our true feelings, even if it’s confiding our criminal ambitions.

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But as the plot develops Fairbanks who’s been on the fringe of Robinson’s activities, meets Glenda Farrell and they fall in love. And through her partially Fairbanks develops a conscience about what he’s seen.

How Robinson deals with it and what becomes of everyone involved is for those interested in viewing the film. But after over 70 years, Little Caesar holds up very well because of its universal theme.

Loneliness at the top is an occupational hazard for all ambitious people. It’s never expressed in such raw terms as in the gangster film genre. But it’s still used. Used in fact in both the Paul Muni version of Scarface and in Al Pacino’s version as well.

Mervyn LeRoy did a fine job in directing this groundbreaking piece of entertainment. Robinson’s portrayal once seen is never forgotten.

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Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

You can dish it out, but you can’t take it!”

10/10
Author: theowinthrop from United States
12 October 2006

Technically it is not the first gangster movie. D.W.Griffith’s MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY was, and after that there were films in the silent period dealing with gangs and crime. But the cycle of anti-hero gangsters began in the sound period with LITTLE CAESAR (1930/31) followed by THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931) and SCARFACE: SHAME OF THE NATION (1932). Each made a movie star out of the lead actor: Edward G. Robinson as Enrico Bandello in LITTLE CAESAR; James Cagney as Tom Powers in THE PUBLIC ENEMY; and Paul Muni as Tony Carmonte in SCARFACE.

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The interesting thing about these three sound classics is that the central anti-heroes are not the same (except in their willing use of violence). Cagney enjoys the violence as much as Muni, but Cagney has a great sense of loyalty to his friends and a deep love for his mother. Muni respects his mother, but his family love is centered on his sister (Ann Dvorak), and his loyalty to friends ends the moment he suspects they are no longer obeying him or are threatening him. And Robinson? He has no close contact with any family in the story (his last words are addressed to the Virgin Mary (“Mother of mercy”), not his own mother), and never has a girlfriend (a fact made more clear in the novel). However, he has very strong feeling dealing with his close friend Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), and actually hesitates only once in killing anyone: when he might have to shoot Joe to get at Joe’s girlfriend Olga (Glenda Farrell).

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Suddenly his eyes get teary – one wonders how close he felt towards Fairbanks. His loyal associate, Otero (George E. Stone) does not hesitate to try to shoot Fairbanks, and he wounds him, but they are forced to flee before Otero can finish the job. Interestingly, Rico/Robinson is not as moved when Otero, fatally wounded, tells him to flee a scene or two afterward.

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The gangs in PUBLIC ENEMY and SCARFACE are successful and organized, but we never fully see this. Not so in LITTLE CAESAR. One critical approach to the film has likened it and the rise of Rico to Andrew Carnegie’s advise to young businessmen at the turn of the century. And we do see the organization going from Joe and Rico and Otero to Sam to Diamond Pete Montana to “the Big Boy” (who lives in a mansion with accoutrements). Interestingly when the gang is destroyed, the news of the trials and executions do not include Montana (who has always kept a low profile – he never has his picture taken), or “the Big Boy”. The ones who learn the rules of corporate America, as applied to crime gangs, survive: the Lucianos and Costellos, not the Siegels or Anastasias or Schultzs.

The film set stardom for Robinson, although (like Cagney, but oddly not like Muni) Robinson was stuck mostly in crime movies in the 1930s. It wasn’t until the later 1930s that he was able to show he could play other types of characters, although even when not a gangster he was cast as the villain (THE SEA WOLF). He never did win an Oscar for this part, still his best known), but he did have a long distinguished career in movies, capped (after his last film, the under appreciated SOYLENT GREEN, with a life achievement Oscar. Not bad for a man whose best known character died in a gutter wondering why he was ending this way instead of on top.

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The Rise and Fall of Cesar Enrico Bandello

Author: lugonian from Kissimmee, Florida
11 June 2004

LITTLE CAESAR (First National Pictures, 1930, released early January 1931), directed by Mervyn LeRoy, from the novel by W.R. Burnett, is not a movie dealing with the history of the pizza franchise, but a pioneer gangster melodrama of an underworld thug who rises to the leadership of a powerful gang. Although not the first gangster story captured on film nor the first gangster role enacted by Edward G. Robinson, the film set the standard for gangster films to come. As one of the few movies released during the early sound era to still hold interest today, the true success of LITTLE CAESAR is the casting of Robinson in the title role, referred to on many occasions as Rico, or his full name of Cesar Enrico Bandello. There’s no question that Robinson, a fine actor with the “bulldog” face, is the ideal choice when it comes to playing gangster-types. Within a year, Warners produced another legendary actor with another underworld story, THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931). His name, James Cagney.

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LITTLE CAESAR, usually compared with THE PUBLIC ENEMY, would become companion pieces when reissued later in the decade each intact with a forward introduction that reads, “Perhaps the toughest of the gangster films, LITTLE CAESAR and THE PUBLIC ENEMY had a great effect on public opinion. They brought home violently the evils and associate with prohibition and suggested that necessity of the nationwide of house-cleaning. Tom Powers in THE PUBLIC ENEMY and Rico in LITTLE CAESAR are not two men or are they nearly characters. They are a problem that sooner or later, we, the public, must solve.” Unlike its rival, THE PUBLIC ENEMY, Rico is ambitious and power hungry from the start, and kills those who betray or stand in his way while Cagney’s Tom Powers character is a cold-blooded killer who does away with some of his victims for the fun of it.

Aside from Robinson’s memorable performance and his occasional repeated catch phrase, “You can dish it out, but you can’t take it,” LITTLE CAESAR is full of classic scenes: Rico’s introduction to “the boys” through the use of high range camera angles; the New Year’s Eve robbery of a Bronze Peacock Night Club where Rico’s best pal, Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbank Jr.) works as a dancer, and selected as a lookout for the gang by standing by the cigarette counter at the stroke of midnight; Rico’s termination of a cowardly Tony Passa (William Collier Jr.) in front of the church steps after wanting to break from the gang and to seek help from his parish priest, Father McNeil; Rico’s near machine-gun assassination attempt by a rival gang ordered by leader Little Arnie Lorch (Maurice Black) after purchasing a bundle of newspapers headlining his honorary banquet event; Rico’s confrontation with Joe for betraying him for the sake of a woman, Olga Stassoff (Glenda Farrell), only to find he is unable to gun them both; Rico’s reaching bottom by sleeping in a flop house, appearing dirty, teary eyed and in need of a shave; Rico eluding his capture by Flaherty; and the most famous closing line in movie history, “Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?” While portions of LITTLE CAESAR may appear primitive to contemporary viewers with its early use of sound technology, such as echos from spoken dialogue between the two main characters (Robinson and Fairbanks) in a diner, and others either in office or police station; or Vitaphone orchestration (by Erno Rapee) commonly heard in early talkies; or the lack of the sight of blood following the shooting of intended victims. The real topper comes from Glenda Farrell’s little girl sounding voice as she shouts, “Happy New Year” to Joe Masarra.

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Her brief dancing segment with Joe to the underscoring of “If I’m Dreaming, Don’t Wake Me Too Soon” (from the 1929 motion picture musical, SALLY, starring Marilyn Miller) is performed in long shot camera range. It’s possible that doubles were substituted for Fairbanks and Farrell, considering the fact they aren’t quite believable to be taken for professional dancers.

With a fine cast of supporting actors, ranging from gang members to crime bosses to police commissioners, include Stanley Fields as Sam Vetorri, gang boss who keeps his office at the Club Palermo; Armand Kaliz as DeVoss; George E. Stone as Otero; Sidney Blackmer as “Big Boy”; Ralph Ince as Diamond Pete Montana; Maurice Black as Little Arnie Lorch; and Noel Madison as Peppi. Look fast for character actress Lucille LaVerne, appearing without screen credit, in an extended cameo as “Ma” Magdalena, as tough old hag of a woman (plus a minor touch of an Italian accent), who makes a lasting impression as the only character in the story to stand up to Rico with fierce eyes and get away with it. And speaking of memorable impressions, top acting honors also goes to Thomas E. Jackson as Inspector Tom Flaherty with his distinctive snarling or nasal-tone voice supplying funny one liners (“Why didn’t you come to Sam’s neck stretching party, Rico? It was a BIG success!”).

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At the time of production, Edward G. Robinson probably thought LITTLE CAESAR to be just another movie assignment for him. Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine this was to be permanently linked to him. The continued success of LITTLE CAESAR and Edward G. Robinson, which began playing on commercial television during the late night or mid-afternoon hours for several decades, continues to find a new audience whenever broadcast on Turner Classic Movies (sometimes as a double bill with THE PUBLIC ENEMY), where it was selected at one point in time as part of its weekly showcase, “The Essentials.” Also distributed on video cassette and later DVD, LITTLE CAESAR is one vintage crime story that has stood the test of time. (*** machine guns)

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Still holds up very well

Author: Camera Obscura from The Dutch Mountains
14 October 2006

Seminal gangster film about the rise and fall of Enrico Bandello, a Chicago hoodlum, based on the novel by W.R. Burnett. The prototype for Enrico was, like so many other gangster heroes, mobster Al Capone. If you know a little bit about his life story, you got your basic gangster plot for practically all films that followed, like Tony Camonte in SCARFACE.

This film was the first of “the big three”, together with PUBLIC ENEMY (1931) and SCARFACE: SHAME OF THE NATION (1932) and provided the blueprint for the modern gangster crime flic. It was the first gangster film to reach a wide audience and launched Edward G. Robinson to stardom. The story is simple and straightforward and might feel a little overly familiar to modern audiences, but the film lost little of its power and still holds up pretty well. It’s a tough movie, but mostly tough talking with not much violence on screen.

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But the film would probably be instantly forgettable without Robinson’s superb performance. Whenever he’s on screen, his presence is incredibly menacing. The rest of the cast is so so, but Thomas Jackson as Flaherty, Rico’s nemesis, gives a wonderfully cynical performance, mocking Rico and all the other gangsters. Like most other early gangster films, it lacks the real emotional depth and complexity that came with later films, like the French gangster films of the fifties or THE GODFATHER and was made primarily as popular entertainment. Pleasant entertainment nevertheless with Edward G. Robinson portraying the first classic gangster role in screen history.

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