#327) Little Caesar (1931)

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#327) Little Caesar (1931)          

OR “The Power of ‘Myeah’”

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy

Written by Francis Edward Faragoh and Robert N. Lee. Based on the novel by W.R. Burnett.

Class of 2000

The Plot: The crime scene of 1930s Chicago gets an unexpected jolt with the arrival of Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello (Edward G. Robinson). Tired of being a small-time crook, Caesar and his cohort Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) join gang leader Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields), who gives Rico the nickname “Little Caesar”. While Rico climbs the organizational ladder – eventually becoming the leader of several Chicago territories – Joe becomes a successful dancer and spends more time with his partner/girlfriend Olga (Glenda Farrell). Rico suspects Sam has “gone soft” on him and attempts to get Sam back in his fold, but his newfound power may have gone to his head. This all begs the question: “Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?”

Why It Matters: The NFR praises both Robinson and director LeRoy, though does mention that the film contains “every gangster cliché in its original form”, and that some of the film’s artistry is due to “constraints of sound recording in its early days.”

But Does It Really?: This is another movie whose cultural impact really can’t be measured. Very few people realize their gangster impression is Edward G. Robinson in “Little Caesar”, but the influence of Robinson’s iconic performance is still being felt today. As a whole, “Little Caesar” is an entertaining gangster picture that never outstays its welcome, but Robinson is the reason for its warranted NFR induction.

Wow, That’s Dated: Well the NFR was on to something: this film has every ‘30s gangster cliché, from Italian mobsters to Irish cops.

Seriously, Oscars?: A big hit in 1931, “Little Caesar” received one nomination at the 4th Academy Awards. The film’s Best Adapted Screenplay nod lost to that year’s Best Picture winner, “Cimarron”. Edward G. Robinson never received an Oscar nomination throughout his career, but was honored with a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1973. Sadly, Robinson died shortly after the initial announcement, and his widow Jane accepted the award on his behalf.

Other notes

  • While not Edward G. Robinson’s first film, “Little Caesar” was his first starring role after a handful of supporting credits. For the record, the “G” stands for Goldenberg, his actual surname before pursuing an acting career.
  • Right from the beginning, Rico is established as someone not to be messed with. Rare is the gangster who can be intimidating while wearing a bowtie.
  • I see why Edward G. Robinson impressions are so frequent; he says “myeah” quite a bit in this film. The parodies write themselves.
  • Every time someone says Joe Massara’s name, I get “Fruma-Sarah” stuck in my head.
  • It seems to be purely coincidental, but there is a scene where Olga asks Joe where he’s going with that gun in his hand. Did Jimi Hendrix ever see this movie?
  • We’re only four years into talking pictures, but “Little Caesar” still feels the need to include a handful of intertitles. The few present in this film establish either a scene’s location or a passage of time.
  • Like all the early film greats, Edward G. Robinson is fully aware that less is more. Everyone in this movie overacts around him, but Robinson knows the power of stillness and economy of movement.
  • In addition, Robinson has that “joy of acting” about him. It’s not necessarily the character having fun, but you can tell that Robinson is enjoying playing this part. It helps you enjoy an otherwise unlikable character.
  • Was there a studio policy against quick cuts? The hold-up sequence is done with several dissolves, whereas today it would be more tightly edited.
  • Allegedly, Robinson always closed his eyes when firing a gun, so his eyes had to be taped open. It makes for good copy, but does anyone know if that’s true? And if so, can you spot the tape in the final film?
  • I am living for Thomas E. Jackson’s performance as the super sarcastic Sergeant Flaherty. Apparently he played this stock character in several other films of the era.
  • Say what you will about Rico, he set a goal for himself and damn it, he’s going to achieve it. Do you think he had a five-year plan?
  • Thank god this is pre-code, some of these kills are pretty brutal. But I tip my hat to filmdom’s alleged first drive-by shooting.
  • I think this movie’s alternate title was “Italian Stereotype Bingo”. Mamma mia!
  • Do newspapers still have society pages? I guess in order to have them there need to be newspapers.
  • Wow, this movie did the Spielberg mirror shot 50 years before Spielberg did!
  • If Ma Magdalena sounds familiar, she’s character actor Lucille La Verne, best remembered as the voice of the Queen/Peddler Woman in “Snow White”. Ma Magdalena’s voice sounds like a combination of the two.
  • The police entice Rico to come out of hiding by printing stories in the paper about what a coward he is. That’s actual yellow journalism!
  • Although the Hays Code was not in effect yet, Warner Bros. still felt the need to tone down the film’s final line for fear of offending state censorship boards. Therefore, “Mother of God” became “Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?”

Legacy

  • “Little Caesar” was Edward G. Robinson’s breakout role, and he leaned into the typecasting of gangsters for pretty much the rest of his career.
  • This movie is also responsible for every single Edward G. Robinson impression you’ve ever heard, from Bugs Bunny to Billy Crystal to Chief Wiggum.
  • While not the first gangster picture of the ‘30s, “Little Caesar” is the one that convinced Warner Bros. to start cranking them out. Among the follow-ups are fellow NFR entries “The Public Enemy” and United Artists’ “Scarface: The Shame of the Nation”.
  • I can’t find evidence that Little Caesars Pizza is named after the movie, but I just want to point out how much I enjoy the delicious pizza that Little Caesars has been offering for 60 years. And don’t forget to order Crazy Bread!

Please give me free pizza.

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