Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post is the latest addition in our series of Pre-Code Essentials. Here’s the updated list.
48. Little Caesar (1931)
A small-time hood shoots his way to the top, but how long can he stay there? Starring Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Glenda Farrell, William Collier Jr., and Ralph Ince. Screen version and dialogue by Francis Edwards Faragoh. Continuity by Robert N. Lee. Based on the novel by W.R. Burnett. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Distributed by First National Pictures (Warner Brothers).
“After robbing a gas station, Enrico Cesare Bandello, known as Rico, leaves his small town for the city with his friend Joe Massaro. Joe wants to find work as a dancer, but Rico admires the front page notoriety that gangster Diamond Pete Montana receives. He joins Sam Vittori’s gang, one of the two biggest gangs in town, working directly under Montana, chief lieutenant to Big Boy, the head of the city’s underworld. The other gang is headed by Little Arnie Lorch, who owns a gambling salon. Joe has a job as a dancing partner to Olga Strassoff at Lorch’s establishment. Rico plans a New Year’s Eve raid on Lorch’s club and convinces Joe to act as the front man. During the raid, Rico kills McClure, the crime commissioner, who is a guest that night. After that, Rico and Sam compete for leadership of the gang and Rico wins. Lorch tries to kill Rico, and after he fails, Rico hunts him down and drives him out of the city.
“Soon afterward, Big Boy offers Rico Montana’s territory, and Rico begins to dream of heading the underworld in place of Big Boy. Joe, meanwhile, plans to leave the gang at Olga’s urging. Rico cannot bear to let Joe go, however, and in turn, demands that he leave Olga, threatening to kill her when Joe refuses. To save them both, Joe decides to turn state’s evidence. Rico intends to kill Joe to stop him from talking, but he cannot pull the trigger. After his failed assassination attempt, Rico flees, hiding out from the police. Hoping to goad Rico into revealing himself, Sergeant Flaherty tells the newspapers that Rico was a coward. Rico reacts by phoning the police, and the call is traced to his hiding place, where the police hunt him down and shoot him. Rico dies beneath a poster advertising the dancing team of Joe and Olga.” (Summary by TCM.)
The Gangster Picture is a staple of the Pre-Code era, and Little Caesar, along with both The Public Enemy (1931), discussed on this blog way back in 2013, and Scarface (1932), slated for coverage sometime within the next six months, constitute the trio of films that represent the most ambitious and well-regarded examples of the genre. While mobsters had been screen fodder ever since the silent era, it wasn’t until around 1930 that the gangsters themselves were allowed to anchor narratives as anti-heroic protagonists, thus commandeering what had otherwise been straightforward crime pictures. This structure, in which a film tells the story of a man/woman for whom we are morally disinclined to emotionally invest, was first made possible within the truth-seeking Pre-Code era, and in this present day, screens both large and small are littered with stories boasting a similar conceit. But, unlike the material of today, one mustn’t be so foolish as to assume that these criminal-centric Pre-Code films celebrate the criminal, for more often than not, justice is served and the punishment is severe — maybe not for the sake of the law itself or any sanctimonious notions of pre-supposed rightness, but rather for the sake of the characters’ souls and the humanity that exists within them. This humanity is the core appeal of Little Caesar, which took the burgeoning Gangster genre and turned it into a year-long (at least) cinematic fascination.
Additionally, while rocketing its star, Edward G. Robinson, to acclaim, creating an image of the celluloid mobster that still exists today, the film further defined the aesthetic principles that Warner Brothers would use to distinguish its brand throughout the early 1930s. It is the most important Gangster film of the decade, and while I would argue that both previously mentioned successors are probably more entertaining and connectable to today’s audiences, their elevated existences are the result of foundations laid here in Little Caesar — specifically the decision, not to seek sympathy for Robinson’s title character, but to explore the emotional complexity of his being in ways that spare him from the totality of an audience’s abject scorn and hatred. When this character meets his bitter bullet-fileld end (a hallmark in these pictures), it’s allowed to play as a genuine tragedy, stemming from the very character flaws — the humanity — that the film has, through its design, chosen to explore. Press at the time of release pinpointed Rico’s quest for power as the quality that both made him stand out from past cinematic mobsters, all of whom were their pictures’ villains, and served as the human conduit that made him relatable.
But this character’s undoing is a result of his inability to be totally ruthless — an inner weakness, hinged on love and kinship, that makes him unable to kill the person who, for his career’s sake, needs to be killed. And then there’s his fatal pride that, once back on the skids, leads to his lead-filled demise. However, it’s really the first point — the love and kinship — that is the linchpin for tragedy, and this, rightfully so, is the most discussed aspect of the film: the homosexual undertones (or overtones, really) that score the relationship Rico shares with his best friend (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who gives a mannered performance in a role that would have benefited from more truth). You see, while Rico’s anger at Joe is ostensibly about the betrayal of the gang, it’s difficult not to see this as a betrayal of the heart as well — with Glenda Farrell serving as Joe’s “other woman.” Now, I’m always wary of adding a layered reading on top of a work that doesn’t invite additional layers — I’m a big proponent of “what you see is what you get” — but because the screenplay (unlike the novel, by the way), uses Rico’s regard for Joe as the reason for the former’s downfall, it’s impossible not to examine the weight of that relationship and what this means for Rico’s character — why he is the way he is, why he says what he says, and why he feels (but doesn’t say) what he feels.
Furthermore, any doubt as to the nature of Rico’s regard for Joe is ameliorated by Robinson’s performance in the climactic scene, in which the big, bad, macho tough guy can’t bring himself to kill his bud, as this murderous, unsympathetic, evil (in word and deed) gangster is overcome with such emotion that he cowers away teary-eyed. (Teary-eyed, yet!) So, the depth of feeling portrayed by Robinson as Rico both gives credence to the readings of his character’s closeted sexuality while also propagating the entire era’s determination to find the human being — the truth — in the figures portrayed on screen, even criminals who would ordinarily inspire uncapped disgust. Little Caesar‘s success in doing this, by way of Robinson’s legendary performance (spoofed often in the decades since), encouraged all ensuing Gangster pictures (and the sensation that Little Caesar sparked guaranteed that there would be more), like The Public Enemy, to use and make variations on these potently proven themes. And while that latter picture remains the more entertaining, thanks to the sheer magnetism of Cagney, whose character is so volatile that both his goodness and badness are heightened (leading to a more grandiose feeling of tragedy), Little Caesar is the pioneer: turning the gangster — not into a good guy, but into a human.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in again on Tuesday for more Larry Sanders!