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Edward G. Robinson,
Rico is a small-time hood who knocks off gas stations for whatever he can take. He heads east and signs up with Sam Vettori's mob. A New Year's Eve robbery at Little Arnie Lorch's casino results in the death of the new crime commissioner Alvin McClure. Rico's good friend Joe Massara, who works at the club as a professional dancer, works as the gang's lookout man and wants out of the gang. Rico is ambitious and eventually takes over Vettori's gang; he then moves up to the next echelon pushing out Diamond Pete Montana. When he orders Joe to dump his girlfriend Olga and re-join the gang, Olga decides there's only one way out for them. Written by
LITTLE CAESAR (First National Pictures, 1930, released early January 1931), directed by Mervyn LeRoy, from the novel by W.R. Burnett, is not a movie dealing with the history of the pizza franchise, but a pioneer gangster melodrama of an underworld thug who rises to the leadership of a powerful gang. Although not the first gangster story captured on film nor the first gangster role enacted by Edward G. Robinson, the film set the standard for gangster films to come. As one of the few movies released during the early sound era to still hold interest today, the true success of LITTLE CAESAR is the casting of Robinson in the title role, referred to on many occasions as Rico, or his full name of Cesar Enrico Bandello. There's no question that Robinson, a fine actor with the "bulldog" face, is the ideal choice when it comes to playing gangster-types. Within a year, Warners produced another legendary actor with another underworld story, THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931). His name, James Cagney.
LITTLE CAESAR, usually compared with THE PUBLIC ENEMY, would become companion pieces when reissued later in the decade each intact with a forward introduction that reads, "Perhaps the toughest of the gangster films, LITTLE CAESAR and THE PUBLIC ENEMY had a great effect on public opinion. They brought home violently the evils and associate with prohibition and suggested that necessity of the nationwide of house-cleaning. Tom Powers in THE PUBLIC ENEMY and Rico in LITTLE CAESAR are not two men or are they nearly characters. They are a problem that sooner or later, we, the public, must solve." Unlike its rival, THE PUBLIC ENEMY, Rico is ambitious and power hungry from the start, and kills those who betray or stand in his way while Cagney's Tom Powers character is a cold-blooded killer who does away with some of his victims for the fun of it.
Aside from Robinson's memorable performance and his occasional repeated catch phrase, "You can dish it out, but you can't take it," LITTLE CAESAR is full of classic scenes: Rico's introduction to "the boys" through the use of high range camera angles; the New Year's Eve robbery of a Bronze Peacock Night Club where Rico's best pal, Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbank Jr.) works as a dancer, and selected as a lookout for the gang by standing by the cigarette counter at the stroke of midnight; Rico's termination of a cowardly Tony Passa (William Collier Jr.) in front of the church steps after wanting to break from the gang and to seek help from his parish priest, Father McNeil; Rico's near machine-gun assassination attempt by a rival gang ordered by leader Little Arnie Lorch (Maurice Black) after purchasing a bundle of newspapers headlining his honorary banquet event; Rico's confrontation with Joe for betraying him for the sake of a woman, Olga Stassoff (Glenda Farrell), only to find he is unable to gun them both; Rico's reaching bottom by sleeping in a flop house, appearing dirty, teary eyed and in need of a shave; Rico eluding his capture by Flaherty; and the most famous closing line in movie history, "Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?" While portions of LITTLE CAESAR may appear primitive to contemporary viewers with its early use of sound technology, such as echos from spoken dialogue between the two main characters (Robinson and Fairbanks) in a diner, and others either in office or police station; or Vitaphone orchestration (by Erno Rapee) commonly heard in early talkies; or the lack of the sight of blood following the shooting of intended victims. The real topper comes from Glenda Farrell's little girl sounding voice as she shouts, "Happy New Year" to Joe Masarra. Her brief dancing segment with Joe to the underscoring of "If I'm Dreaming, Don't Wake Me Too Soon" (from the 1929 motion picture musical, SALLY, starring Marilyn Miller) is performed in long shot camera range. It's possible that doubles were substituted for Fairbanks and Farrell, considering the fact they aren't quite believable to be taken for professional dancers.
With a fine cast of supporting actors, ranging from gang members to crime bosses to police commissioners, include Stanley Fields as Sam Vetorri, gang boss who keeps his office at the Club Palermo; Armand Kaliz as DeVoss; George E. Stone as Otero; Sidney Blackmer as "Big Boy"; Ralph Ince as Diamond Pete Montana; Maurice Black as Little Arnie Lorch; and Noel Madison as Peppi. Look fast for character actress Lucille LaVerne, appearing without screen credit, in an extended cameo as "Ma" Magdalena, as tough old hag of a woman (plus a minor touch of an Italian accent), who makes a lasting impression as the only character in the story to stand up to Rico with fierce eyes and get away with it. And speaking of memorable impressions, top acting honors also goes to Thomas E. Jackson as Inspector Tom Flaherty with his distinctive snarling or nasal-tone voice supplying funny one liners ("Why didn't you come to Sam's neck stretching party, Rico? It was a BIG success!").
At the time of production, Edward G. Robinson probably thought LITTLE CAESAR to be just another movie assignment for him. Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine this was to be permanently linked to him. The continued success of LITTLE CAESAR and Edward G. Robinson, which began playing on commercial television during the late night or mid-afternoon hours for several decades, continues to find a new audience whenever broadcast on Turner Classic Movies (sometimes as a double bill with THE PUBLIC ENEMY), where it was selected at one point in time as part of its weekly showcase, "The Essentials." Also distributed on video cassette and later DVD, LITTLE CAESAR is one vintage crime story that has stood the test of time. (*** machine guns)
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