Little Caesar Reviews
Mr. Robinson Steps Up and Out by J.M.C.
Copyright The New Yorker 1930.
In "Little Caesar," the new picture at the Strand, you may find some insight into the criminal mind which will be useful in your dealing and contracts with this social system of ours.
Since his appearence on the stage in "The Racket", Edward G. Robinson has grown to be the leading authority on the behavior and mannerisms of those gunmen and gangsters whose doings often occupy the attention of the press. Evidently all his experience and research work in such a field are now employed in the study of Rico Bandello, the central figure of this movie.
"Little Caesar" (from W. R. Burnett's chronicle) is the story of the Chicago career of an enterprising young man from a small town who climbs high, step by step, in the world of gangsters until he steps just a bit too far when he shoots the Crime Commissioner.
The picture does not indorse his activities, and he dies at last miserably in a vacant lot under the machine-gun fire of the police.
Aside from the unobtrusive subplot involving Little Caesar's comrade, admirably played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and a night club dancer, the movie is almost a case history, a straight document of the man's life. It is not as a glamorous affair nor as a story of adventure that picture is interesting.
The piece is not so intensively nor thoroughly worked out, I feel, as to be the final word on this absorbing topic, yet Mr. Robinson's diagnosis of our Little Augies and perennial Gyp the Bloods is so simplified and so articulate as to be the outstanding characterization of the kind at the moment.
You gather from his portrayal that sinister persons have the most curious childlike qualities. The most naive vanity seems to be the moving of his Little Caesar. His eyes glitter at the sight of a scarfpin in the tie of his superior, and nothing will him until he has then disposed of gentleman and assumed his leadership and his jewels. When he reaches pinnacles where he must don a dinner coat, with spats, he is fearful that he looks a fool yet is fascinated by the elegance of his own appearance. Mr. Robinson makes this more sensitve side of the character amusing, yet hardly poignant. He is doubtless correct in his suggestion of a stupidity behind this slick and adroit gunplay which is this Caesar's solution of all problems. What he does is to make the gunman certainly no hero in a world of appealing glamour, and very probably his analysis is accurate.
This is the landmark film that launched the gangster genre. Edward G. Robinson is a dedicated killer and thief right from the opening scene. He disappears into a gas station and, after a flash of gunfire, emerges with the money from the till. His driver, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., nervously wheels the coupe into the darkness. Later, Robinson and Fairbanks are in a diner, ordering "spaghetti and coffee for two," leaving little doubt as to their nationality. After reading in the newspaper about underworld big shots, Robinson tells Fairbanks that he (Robinson), too, will some day be a rackets czar, that he's not "just another mug." When he arrives in the big city, Robinson goes to the Palermo Club, where Stanley Fields is the resident boss and one of the underworld kingpins. When Robinson tells Fields that he can be of service to him, Fields takes him into a room to meet his mob. The camera pans the room to show a motley, mean-looking crew, including George E. Stone, Noel Madison, William Collier, and Ben Hendricks. Robinson quickly earns both their respect and a lickspittle sidekick, Stone. As Robinson proves his fearlessness in one caper after another, he becomes the No. 2 man under Fields, while Fairbanks falls in love with Glenda Farrell, a dancer in a club run by Maurice Black, and becomes her dancing partner. When head detective Thomas Jackson begins applying pressure to the Fields mob, Fields loses his nerve, but after the mob backs Robinson in a robbery opposed by both Fields and the city's crime czar, Ralph Ince, Robinson takes over the mob. Ince has already told Black, Fields, and other bosses to go easy on the violence because Landers Stevens, the crime commissioner, is cracking down; Robinson and his gang make a raid on Black's nightclub anyway, robbing the till and the customers, and killing Stevens.
Following the robbery, Robinson meets the "Big Boy," the cultured and all-powerful Sidney Blackmer, a high-society tycoon who pulls all the underworld strings. Impressed with Blackmer's huge mansion and exquisite furnishings, Robinson apes his boss by setting himself up in similar surroundings. He is given a testimonial dinner at the Palermo Club, where he is awarded a gold watch as a gift from "the boys."(He sours on the gift when he finds it's been stolen.) The next day Robinson buys several newspapers featuring pictures of himself at the banquet, and, while strolling down the street, is fired on by a machine-gunner in a speeding truck. Coming away with only a flesh wound, Robinson begins to believe that he is invincible. Stone comes to Robinson to tell him that Collier, guilt-ridden over the Stevens killing, is going to his local priest to confess. When Robinson fails to convince Collier that he is betraying the mob, he shoots and kills the repentant hoodlum on the steps of the church. Robinson, now near the top of the heap, plans to get rid of Blackmer with the help of Fairbanks. A weakling, Fairbanks refuses to rejoin the mob, his resistance bolstered by the iron-willed Farrell's standing up to Robinson. Robinson, who understands nothing but money and power, tells Fairbanks that "dames" will be his downfall, that "having your own way or nothing" is the only real reason for living. Farrell calls cop Jackson, telling him that her boy friend Fairbanks knows who killed Stevens. Robinson and Stone confront Fairbanks, but Robinson cannot bring himself to shoot his old pal. When Jackson and the cops arrive, Stone is shot to death, but Robinson escapes.
His gang and fortune gone, Robinson pays an old harridan, Lucille La Verne, to hide him in a secret back room of her rundown store. She gives him back only a pittance of the money he has stowed away with her for safekeeping and then kicks him out. Robinson hits the skids, living on the streets and, when he can afford it, in flophouses. He reads in the newspapers that he has disappeared because he is a coward and won't face Jackson and the police--stories deliberately planted to draw him out of hiding. They work; when Robinson makes a threatening call to Jackson, his call is traced to the warehouse district, where Jackson soon tracks Robinson down. Seeing the police car coming, Robinson ducks behind a billboard. Jackson orders him to come out, but Robinson, pulling a pistol, yells back: "Come in and get me!" Jackson aims a machine gun at the billboard and rakes it, peppering Robinson with bullets. Robinson collapses, and Jackson steps behind the billboard in time to hear the once powerful gangster moan out: "Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?"
LITTLE CAESAR was one of the first sound films to portray the American gangster outside of prison walls, coming after such early prison stories as THE LAST MILE, THE BIG HOUSE, and NUMBERED MEN. Robinson's character is as ruthless as Al Capone, the real-life gangster upon whom Chicago author W.R. Burnett based his tale: Capone rose, as does Robinson, through the ranks from goon bodyguard to overall crime czar. The part Ince plays is based upon Big Jim Colisimo, whom Capone murdered in 1920 on his way up the bloody ladder of crime; the underworld banquet held in Robinson's honor is based upon a notorious fete given on Chicago's North Side in the early 1920s to honor gangsters Dion "Deanie" O'Bannion and Samuel J. "Nails" Morton, attended by aldermen and high-society potentates, and reported widely in the press. Blackmer's "Big Boy" role is based upon the utterly corrupt Big Bill Thompson, mayor of Chicago and Capone's hip-pocket politician. Burnett was 28 years old and living in Chicago when, according to producer Hal Wallis, the young writer was listening to a radio broadcast from a local nightclub and actually heard the gunfire of gangsters spraying the audience with bullets to kill rival hoodlums. His friend was among those killed, and as a result he wrote Little Caesar, a bitter, savage portrait of mob violence. Burnett sent the book to Dial Press, where it was immediately accepted and published, becoming an overnight sensation and establishing Burnett as a master of crime tales. (He would later author such crime masterpieces as The Asphalt Jungle.) Asked by Wallis to write the film script, Burnett declined; Robert Lord did a rough draft, but Wallis, finding it too sophisticated, assigned Francis Edward Faragoh to tone it down with some gangster lingo. Darryl Zanuck also had a hand in bringing the story to the gutter level where it would be believable. The resulting screenplay earned an Oscar nomination for Best Screen Adaptation.
Made for a then-hefty $700,000, the film was a box-office smash and typecast Robinson in the role of the gangster. Given free rein by Zanuck, director Mervyn LeRoy produced a fast-paced film that kept up with its lightning-fast star. Oddly, LITTLE CAESAR contains a minimum of explicit violence, although murderous intent is always lurking in Robinson's menacing face. The 37-year-old Robinson was not new to films; he had been acting in movies since 1923, though he was largely unnoticed. Wallis assigned Robinson the lead, but the sensitive actor found it difficult to adjust to the role of the killer, blinking wildly every time he had to fire a gun. LeRoy solved the problem by affixing little transparent bands of tape to Robinson's upper eyelids, so that when he did blast away, his eyes remained wide open; this trick had the added benefit of giving Robinson an even more menacing, heartless appearance. The film was not the first movie to deal with the criminal underworld. The great silent film director D. W. Griffith portrayed the underworld of New York in a one-reeler, THE MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY (1912). Then, in 1927, came the silent film UNDERWORLD, directed by Josef von Sternberg and written by Ben Hecht, a portrait of Capone and his rise to gangland big shot. But it took LITTLE CAESAR to establish the popular gangster genre, which was quickly augmented by a host of other films such as PUBLIC ENEMY, SMART MONEY, and THE FINGER POINTS (all 1931), and SCARFACE (1932).