Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Little Caesar (1931)

Director: Mervyn LeRoy                                 Writer: Francis Edward Faragoh
Music: David Mendoza                                  Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Glenda Farrell and Thomas E. Jackson

It may have been the end of Rico, but it was also the beginning of Warners’ love affair with the gangster picture. Little Caesar, along with the James Cagney film The Public Enemy, were the two films that solidified the reputation of Warner Brothers as the finest producer of gritty crime dramas in Hollywood. It was also the film that made Edward G. Robinson a star. The original novel by W.R. Burnett was a thinly veiled story of Chicago mobster Al Capone, which is the reason that Jack Warner wanted to purchase it in the first place. The story had to be changed enough to avoid a libel suit, though it’s difficult to believe an egomaniac like Capone wouldn’t have enjoyed the film tremendously. The publicity at the time, however, was very different. Howard Hawks, while filming Scarface, was visited by an emissary of the Chicago mobster who wanted to see the film, and from that Hawks built a publicity campaign out of an imaginary assertion claiming Capone was attempting to suppress his film. Warner Brothers version of Capone was an instant hit with audiences and was even nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay.

The film opens on a gas station at night. Two men hop out of a car, turn off the lights inside, and shots ring out. Then the men hop into the car and leave. Later at a diner, Edward G. Robinson as Caesar Enrico Bandello turns the clock back while the cook is in the kitchen, establishing an alibi for him and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Reading about the big mobster Ralph Ince, Robinson decides to head east and try to make something of himself. No more gas station robberies for Rico. Fairbanks wants to be successful too, but only as a means to get out of the rackets. When the two men get to Chicago Robinson joins up with mob boss Stanley Fields and Fairbanks gets a job in a nightclub dancing with Glenda Farrell. Farrell falls for him and when she learns he’s in the rackets she asks him to get out of it for her. But Fairbanks doesn’t seem terribly interested in making the attempt, primarily because he doesn’t think it can be done. Meanwhile Robinson meets Ince, who is Fields’ boss, and is impressed with his jewelry and wants to be like him. Robinson doesn’t like being the low man, and keeps working on ways to move up in the organization. Fields’ next job is to rob the nightclub where Fairbanks works and Robinson wants Fairbanks in on the job. Fairbanks tries to refuse, but Robinson tells him he doesn’t have a choice.

Fairbanks does his job and is wracked by guilt, while Robinson winds up shooting the crime commissioner Landers Stevens. But rather than getting himself in trouble, he winds up replacing Fields. From there he continues his rise to the end of the film when his meteor falls back to Earth. If the film has a flaw it is in the actual dramatic arc of the film. Robinson’s rise to power really isn’t accompanied by any meaningful actions. When he takes over Field’s operation he simply challenges the boss in his office and the rest of gang goes along with Robinson for no apparent reason. While he kills the crime commissioner it doesn’t directly lead to anything. The most chilling moment in the film comes when he shoots William Collier Jr. on the steps of the church, but Collier is an underling. The film, as a result, is more of a character study but Robinson doesn’t really seem to crave power, and instead seems more interested in prestige. The only conflict for Robinson comes in his inability to control Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Fairbanks is also a difficult character to figure out. He is weak and ineffectual and when he finally confronts Robinson he winds up running away.

Much has been read into the relationship between Robinson and Fairbanks in the film, as it has with so many male relationships in Hollywood films, and the whole notion seems to be entirely too analytical. Female relationships for gangsters--or soldiers, or scientists, or sailors--simply complicates the story in ways that take too long to resolve. In fact, the original screenplay for Warners’ The Adventures of Robin Hood didn’t have a Maid Marian at all, not because the screenwriter wanted the Merry Men to be gay, but because she wasn’t in the original myths. In many ways, the emphasis on male relationships in early Hollywood films is simpler because it eliminates sex. Despite its flaws, the influence of Little Caesar on gangster films is undeniable. From the Italian background of the main character, the Club Palermo--a Sicilian town--to the need for respect, there are a surprising number of things in the film that will carry through all the way to The Godfather. And in the character of Collier, the driver who loses his nerve, some will carry over as set pieces: the relationship with his mother, Ferike Boros, and his shooting on the steps of the church, as well as the funeral procession down the street that would make its way to The Godfather II in the form of the parade. Little Caesar the heralded the birth of the gangster film as we know it today. Though not the best, it was the first, and still remains a highly influential and entertaining film.

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