Little Caesar (1931)

Written by Francis Edward Faragoh. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. A small time crook dreams of becoming of a big time gangster. He gets his wish and more… Running time 1 hour 19 minutes.

Synopsis

After Rico (aka Little Caesar) (Edward G. Robinson) and his partner Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) pull off a small time hit at a gas station, Rico and Joe read about a big city gangster in the newspaper. Rico decides it’s time for something more in life, so he and Joe set off to the city to make a name for Rico.

Once they arrive in the city, Rico gets in with one of the local crime bosses, Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields) and gets a reputation as a bit of hothead, quick on the trigger. Meanwhile, Joe meets Olga (Glenda Farrell) at a dance hall and decides to leave the crime world and go straight. This doesn’t sit right with Rico who makes Joe do one last job with him.

When Joe gives Rico the sign, midnight on New Year’s Eve at the dance hall, Rico and his friends come in to rob the joint. When the local anti-crime commissioner, Alvin McClure (Landers Stevens) interrupts the job, Rico shoots him causing panic among the crime bosses.

When Sam tries to berate Rico for shooting the crime commissioner, Rico informs Sam “He’s through!” meaning Rico is now taking over as the boss. Sam relents. Sgt. Flaherty (Thomas E. Jackson) the local detective, sniffs around making sure Rico knows he’s watching. The other crime bosses, Tony Passa (William Collier Jr.), Pete Montana (Ralph Ince), and Big Boy (Sidney Blackmer) decide to band together to get rid of Rico but their initial attempt fails. This makes Rico even angrier.

When Rico finds out that Joe tried to tip him off of the tip, he pays a visit to Joe. Things go awry and Joe gets shot. Olga calls the cops and now Rico is on the run. He gets away but loses everything.

He goes into hiding and ends up in a homeless shelter drinking booze. While there, he overhears some guys reading an article about Rico/Little Caesar being a coward for going into hiding. This fuels Rico’s rage against Sgt. Flaherty prompting Rico to call the station to yell at Sgt. Flaherty who traces the call. Sgt. Flaherty and his guys take off to capture Rico. Rico ducks behind a billboard and refuses to come out. Sgt. Flaherty grabs his “chopper” (machine gun) and shoots across the billboard. Sgt. Flaherty and his cops run behind the billboard for Rico’s last words, “Mother of Mercy! Is this the end of Rico?”

What I Liked

The films of this era weren’t super high tech or fancy with camera angles which brought a straight forward intensity to the scenes and the actors. Close-ups were used when a strong point was being made and wide shots allowed all the actors in the scene to work and be engaged. Silent film era techniques are used like Joe and Olga speaking to each other in a very tight way causing her to tilt her head back right before they kiss, title cards to bridge certain scenes, and intense facial expressions.

I love the costuming with the three piece suits, shoe covers, and hats for the gangsters, the party dresses (especially Olga’s with the long flowy sleeves), and down-trodden. A lot of detail to show who’s who in the cast.

The timing and pacing of the story as Rico goes from small time hood to big city gangster to his final fall. His intense focus for fame and flashy jewelry and no time for women or booze. Edward G. Robinson as Rico would become the gangster emulated in future gangster movies as well as a lot of kids running around playing cops and robbers.

The music score added intensity, joyfulness, and despair when needed. Another technique from the silent film era carried over to support the emotion of the scene. The music is more like serial bumper music moving from scene to scene–in your face–which makes sense as silent films relied on the music to get the emotional point across–and this film keeps that technique; although, the acting doesn’t need it.

These early films are fascinating to watch actors learn to transition from theatrical and intense facial expressions and physicality of silent films to talking pictures. I would be curious, as an experiment–not for theatrical release or anything–to re-make the dialogue scenes with exact same expressions and physicality to see how it plays with current equipment and actors. (Probably Joe Pesci in his younger years as Rico. Maybe Rico was his inspiration a bit in Good Fellas?)

Oh, and the billboard at the end with Olga and Joe on it is both ironic for Rico and gorgeous…And boy, do they know how to party back then! Streamers everywhere!

What I Wished Was Better

I wished more people knew about the films from this era…I know there are people on Twitter trying to get the word out 🙂 (@PulpCereal)

Final Thoughts

Little Caesar is the original gangster film which every gangster film after it tries to emulate. A classic, thrilling ride from small time to big time. Crime doesn’t pay and like the opening title card says (translated), “those who live by the sword, die by the sword…” Available on streaming platforms. (I own a blue-ray copy.) Watch the trailer below:

Fun Facts: The writer of the novel the film is based on, W.R. Burnett, was angry no Italian actors were cast. Robinson had a hard time keeping his eyes open when he had to fire his gun facing the camera, so they taped his eyelids open. The film broke an attendance record of grossing $55,000 in 11 showings in New York City. The scene in which Tony is gunned down on the church steps is the first drive-by shooting on film.

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