*** 1\2 (out of ****)
There had been other crime dramas before it – D.W. Griffith directed “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” (1912), selected last year by the Library of Congress for preservation, “The Racket” (1928), nominated for best picture at the first Academy Award ceremony – but few may have been as influential as “Little Caesar” (1931).
The gangster movies of the 1930s have a special place in the history of American cinema. They are reflective of their time and comment on the public’s fascination with figures such as “Baby Face” Nelson, John Dillinger and Al Capone, who may have served as the inspiration for the characters in “Little Caesar” and “Scarface” (1932) with Paul Muni. Made during the Great Depression, when Prohibition was enforced, many believe gangster movies romanticized bank robbers and created public sympathy for characters interpreted as symbols of the American Dream gone awry. One can argue we see this in the movies of today such as “Hell or High Water” (2016).
Based on a novel written by Oscar-nominated writer W.R. Burnett, who was nominated for the war movie “Wake Island” (1942), “Little Caesar” tells of the now familiar tale of a small-time hood who works his way up the ranks of a life of crime and his eventual downfall. When we first meet Rico aka Little Caesar (Edward G. Robinson) he has just robbed a gas station and shot a man. He and his partner, Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), hide out at a diner. After reading about a famous gangster in the paper, Rico reveals he too wants to be famous, a “somebody”; he wants to strike fear in people, something he equates with respect. At that moment, he decides to go to Chicago, where big things happen.
This actually is not unlike a story of a young actor or dancer living in a small town that heads out to a major city in the hopes of finding fame and success. Once in Chicago, Rico and Joe join a gang headed by Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields, who often played opposite many of the great comedians and comedy teams of the era such as Laurel & Hardy, Eddie Cantor and Wheeler & Woolsey). It is clear however that Rico doesn’t like taking orders and a power struggle develops between the two men while Joe wants to make a clean break and start a new life as a dancer with his girlfriend, Olga (Glenda Farrell). But is it ever possible to leave a gang or will his old life always follow him? This idea would become very prominent in heist movies.
Edward G. Robinson (born Emanuel Goldenberg in 1893 in Bucharest, Romania) had acted in a few movies prior to “Little Caesar”. His first movie credit dates to 1916 but it was his performance here that is believed to have made him a star and forever identify him with tough guy roles. Robinson, at various times, plays the character with a child’s wide-eyed fascination as he looks at the expensive clothes others are wearing and marvels at their beautiful homes. Other times, Robinson plays up the character’s mean streak and cold nature and adds moments of vulnerability, especially in regards to the character’s relationship with Joe, touching on the theme of loyalty often found in gangster movies. Some even interpret their relationship as having a homosexual undercurrent. Masculinity is a theme of the movie, and the genre popularized the image of the “macho male”.
Nominated for an Academy Award in the best writing, adaptation category, the movie’s success critically and at the box office inspired the release of other gangster movies such as “Scarface” and “Public Enemy” (1931) starring James Cagney (another actor associated with tough guy roles). It has been suggested that because of the “glorified violence” in these movies, the Motion Picture Production Code (or the Hays Code) started its strict enforcement, beginning in 1934 (thus the term “pre-code”), but even prior to this Hollywood was placing a great emphasis on establishing a moral, “crime doesn’t pay” message. “Little Caesar” opens with a biblical quote taken from Matthew: 26-52, “For all then that take the sword, shall perish with the sword”.
The influence of “Little Caesar” can be seen in the films of Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. Although “Little Caesar” may seem dated to younger movie goers the movie’s significant place in cinema cannot be debated. Perhaps “crime doesn’t pay” but watching “Little Caesar” does.