Most lovers of classic Hollywood film know what an outstanding and versatile dramatic actor Romanian-born Edward G. Robinson could be. In a career that stretched over four decades, Robinson appeared in an astonishing number of quality films, and even the lesser of his pictures were made interesting and watchable by his mere presence. Fewer viewers, I have a suspicion, may recall how adept Robinson could be at comedy, but for proof of this, one need look no further than one of the actor's pre-Code efforts, "The Little Giant." Released in May 1933, this was not only Eddie's first comedic role, but indeed, the very first gangster comedy ever made. Produced by First National Pictures, which had been taken over by Warner Bros. in 1928, the film's mash-up of genres was successful enough to pave the way for later gangster comedies featuring Robinson. John Ford's "The Whole Town's Talking" (1935, and featuring Jean Arthur in her breakthrough role) was perhaps the best of the bunch, followed in 1938 by the borderline screwball "A Slight Case of Murder" and 1942's very funny "Larceny, Inc.," and even some "serious" gangster pictures featuring Robinson, such as 1938's "The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse" and 1940's "Brother Orchid," would contain a goodly leavening of humor. In short, the gangster comedy, as initially proved by "The Little Giant," was a very viable entertainment.
In the film, Eddie plays a Chicago mobster named Francis "Bugs" Ahearn. When Prohibition ends in 1933 (the film was most certainly timely!) and booze is suddenly made legal, Bugs decides to call it quits, pay off his boys, go legit, get some culture and move to Santa Barbara, CA. He's got "a million and a quarter salted away," and with that filthy lucre and his childhood buddy Al (Russell Hopton, very funny here in his straight-man role), he arrives at a posh hotel by the sea, ready to crash high society. After falling in love with a glamorous "skirt" named Polly Cass (Helen Vinson), Bugs decides to buy a ritzy 20-room, 14-bath mansion to impress her, and makes his pretty Realtor, Ruth (a very appealing Mary Astor), both his house manager and social secretary. But what Bugs doesn't know is that Polly is a con artist, from an entire family of con artists; indeed, a family that makes Janet Gaynor's family of crooks in 1938's "Young in Heart" seem perfectly angelic! It seems as if Bugs might be learning polo and buying a wedding ring in vain....
Featuring wonderfully snappy dialogue, well-drawn characters and big laffs, "The Little Giant" is an absolute delight from start to finish. The film is remarkably compact, and manages to pack quite a bit of yucks and story into its brief 74-minute running time. Indeed, director Roy del Ruth never lets the pace flag; he would not work with Robinson again, but would reunite with Astor the following year for a picture called "Upperworld," one that I have not seen but which has a good reputation. Robinson and Astor have some definite chemistry on screen, and the viewer wonders what Bugs sees in the comparatively homely Polly when Astor's Ruth is so much brighter, sweeter, prettier...and certainly more honest. Astor's face in the early '30s seemed a bit softer and rounder than the more angular look she boasted in the '40s, and her Ruth Wayburn here is ever so much more attractive than the Brigid O'Shaughnessy that Humphrey Bogart would encounter in 1941's "The Maltese Falcon." Robinson and Astor had apparently appeared together once before, in the little-seen 1923 silent "The Bright Shawl" (also starring Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Gish and William Powell--what a cast!--and with Astor playing Robinson's daughter), and would also appear together in 1934's "The Man With Two Faces." Being one of the last of the pre-Code films, "The Little Giant" sports some lines that modern-day audiences might not be prepared for, such as the reference to giving someone "the finger," and when Bugs refers to the upper-crust snobs as a bunch of "fags"! And then there is the startling early scene in which Bugs shows Al a piece of abstract art (Robinson, it should be remembered, would, years later, own one of the largest private art collections in the world, and one that he had to sell in 1956 to pay off a divorce settlement) and asks his buddy, "You ever seen anything like that before?" Al's response: "Not since I've been off cocaine"! You've gotta love these pre-Code gems! Anyway, Robinson seems to be having a ball here, turning his 1931 "Little Caesar" role of Rico Bandello on its head and squeezing it for laffs; he even gets to look straight into the camera once, hilariously. And yet, this tough guy with a decent heart manages to arouse the viewer's sympathy, too, as he haplessly mingles with the snooty society folk and chases a girl who is waaaaay wrong for him. How satisfying it is, then, when Bugs uses some Chicago strongarm tactics toward the film's finale to rectify the wrongs done him by the Cass family! And what a sweet little ending, too, to wrap things up with! An enormously pleasing entertainment, it's no wonder that "The Little Giant" opened up a whole new genre of film!
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