By Scott Ross
This early talkie was, with The Public Enemy (also 1931) one of two movies that more or less created, and defined, the gangster picture, and made Warner Bros. a haven for tough movies about important social issues. Neither could have been made at any studio other than Warners, which quickly became known and celebrated for “social problem” pictures: Five Star Final (1931), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and 20,000 Years in Sing-Sing (both 1932) and Heroes for Sale, Baby Face and Wild Boys of the Road (all 1933). This pair of archetypal gangland sagas also launched, in James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, two of the studio’s most durable male stars.
Made early in the talkie revolution, Little Caesar is a bit creaky in its groupings of the actors and lacks the fast cutting effects of later sound pictures that made them movies once more and not filmed stage plays. One accepts these limitations; what might have made it a better movie has little to do with its technical limitations, however, but with its divergences from its source. W.R. Burnett’s eponymous book is a short novel bristling with speed and tough action, almost journalistic in its depiction of the meteoric rise, and precipitous fall, of a gangster based pretty obviously on Al Capone. Although it contains a certain amount of interior impressions that would be impossible to translate to the screen, Burnett wrote it almost like an elaborate screen treatment, practically a blueprint for an effective screenplay, and what the filmmakers lost is seldom compensated by what they altered, or added. The one exception is the penultimate sequence in a Chicago flop-house, where the once mighty, previously teetotalling Rico (Robinson) lies on a cot drinking cheap liquor, his eyes burning with wet alcoholic rage as he listens to a sneering newspaper account of his downfall being read by one of his fellow down-and-outers. Given something stronger to project than vulgar charisma and better lines to speak than the prototypical tough-guy dialogue he spouts throughout the picture, Robinson suddenly explodes into life, giving you an incendiary glimpse of the formidable talent he possessed, and would have occasion to draw on later. As someone (I think it might have been Alain Silver) on the Warner DVD documentary quite correctly notes, Robinson’s reaction to being shot down at the end — genuine shock that he’s dying — is a remarkably incisive and honest piece of acting.
In the supporting cast, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. gives little hint of the rather good actor he would later become, Glenda Farrell as his dance partner and girlfriend has little to play but extremes, William Collier Jr. as a terrified getaway driver behaves as though he’s pantomiming for a silent movie and Thomas E. Jackson plays a sarcastic police sergeant in the worst theatrical phony-Irish manner imaginable; he mugs more than James Finlayson. Lucille La Verne (later the voice of the wicked Queen in the Disney Snow White) gets a nice scene as Ma Magdalena, a mercenary Rico mistakes for a friend. In the novel Ma is his unofficial banker, loyal for a fee; in the movie, in exchange for giving him sanctuary, she steals him blind. From book to movie Ma goes from local color to an effective, if heavy, ironic device.
One of the odder aspects of Little Caesar is the way its creators (Mervyn LeRoy directed it, Francis Edward Faragoh got the by-line for the screenplay, Robert Lord and Darryl F. Zanuck worked on it uncredited, and Robert N. Lee is given credit for “Continuity”) imply that Rico may be homosexual. There’s nothing in Burnett’s book to suggest this, and the scenarists seem to have taken their cue from the author’s early observation that Rico has no interest in women. Yet it’s quite clear from the narrative that he’s heterosexual, and that he seeks contact with women when he feels sexually compelled. Indeed, once he has achieved his first goal and vanquished his boss in the gang, he takes up with a cheap blonde with whom he is erotically if not romantically involved. It’s further suggested in the movie that he’s in love with the dancer and part-time gang member Joe Massara (Fairbanks), especially when at a crucial moment he’s unable to kill him.* (They’re old friends and criminal cohorts in the movie, initially unfriendly rivals and only later friendly compatriots in the book.) The only character in the novel who might be sexually fluid is Rico’s loyal Latino factotum Otero (George E. Stone), who, while nominally straight keeps proclaiming how much he loves Rico, although this feels rather more like hero-worship than erotic attraction. In the movie, however, there’s a curiously staged bedroom scene between a clearly besotted Otero and a supine Rico that could almost be a post-coital conversation, except they’re both fully clothed.†
One can imagine how Capone felt about that when he saw Little Caesar. And it’s a cinch he did see it; sociopaths, egotists and the wealthy — or am I being redundant? — can always be counted upon to dine out on any depiction of themselves.
Speaking of names: I’ve always assumed the 1970 RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) statute’s acronym was a reference to Little Caesar. G. Robert Blakey, who drafted the law, claims it wasn’t. But I don’t have to believe him if I don’t want to.
*The kicker in Rico’s death-scene is that he’s gunned down behind a billboard depicting Fairbanks and Farrell as the stars of a new theatrical musical.
†You know Little Caesar is a Pre-Code picture, not merely due to its violence, or to those diaphanous gay references, but because twice someone is told to “screw.”
Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross