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Classic Cinema: Little Caesar

Monday, August 1st, 2011

Little Caesar (1931) is one of the most violent gangster films that came out in the darkest days of the Depression, and the film that shot Edward G. Robinson to international fame as the vicious and seemingly unstoppable Caesar Enrico Bandello, who gains the nickname Little Caesar on his rise to the top of the underworld. Directed by the efficiently workmanlike Mervyn LeRoy, Little Caesar spoke to Depression-era audiences in a language they could understand; that in a world without hope, only violence would get you ahead in the world.

While MGM offered glossy, escapist entertainments, Paramount frothy exoticism, and Universal the first major cycle of American horror films, Warner Bros. concentrated on topical, gritty dramas torn from the headlines. Rico rises to the top of heap through sheer brutality alone.  When he takes control of the gang he’s been running with, he tells his former boss, Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields), “you’re getting so you can dish it out, but you can’t take it.” Rico can do both; the only thing stopping him is his clearly homoerotic attachment to his one-time partner, Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) who wants to me a dancer, not a gangster, and who takes up with a young woman, Olga (Glenda Farrell), despite Rico’s warnings that “dames” don’t mix with business.

Scared that Joe is “going soft” and will double-cross him, Rico tries to threaten Joe, who nevertheless “turns copper” and gives him up to the police. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, Rico barges into Joe’s apartment, intent on killing him, but in a stunning close-up, Rico finds he simply can’t pull the trigger on his ex-pal. Forced into hiding, Rico discovers he has no friends left, and winds up a filthy flophouse.

But his massive ego finally proves his undoing; when the papers brand him a coward, Rico phones up his nemesis Sergeant Flaherty (Thomas Jackson) and threatens him with death. Instead, Flaherty and his men track Rico down and blast him with a tommy gun, leaving him to die in the dirt. Rico’s last words, “Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?” have become one of the cinema’s most famous taglines. Little Caesar is thus the archetype of the American gangster film; the rise and fall of a criminal as a moral lesson for the public.

Based on the novel by W.R. Burnett, Little Caesar gave Robinson a role that any actor would have relished; he is center stage for most of the film’s action, he commands a certain amount of audience respect for his criminal exploits, and the success of the film typed him for life a movie tough guy, much to Robinson’s chagrin. In real life, Robinson was an art collector and connoisseur, with none of the “tough guy” attitude he displays in the film. But so effective was his portrayal that up until he death, he was still being cast in gangster roles of one sort of another in a multitude of films.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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