Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This month’s Pre-Code is…
The Little Giant (1933)
When Prohibition ends, a bootlegger tries to break into high society. Starring Edward G. Robinson, Mary Astor, Helen Vinson, Russell Hopton, Kenneth Thomson, and Shirley Grey. Written by Robert Lord & Wilson Mizner. Directed by Roy Del Ruth. Produced by First National. Distributed by Warner Bros.
“At the end of Prohibition, bootlegger James Francis “Bugs” Ahearn realizes that he is out of a job and decides to go straight. He pays off his underworld girl friend Edith Merriam and with his reformed partner, Al Daniels, leaves Chicago for California to establish himself as a respectable millionaire. Once in Santa Barbara, Bugs falls in love with socialite Polly Cass and to impress her, he learns polo, buys a yacht, and rents a mansion from real estate agent Ruth Wayburn, whom he engages as his personal secretary and advisor for gracious living. Bugs, unaware that the house once belonged to Ruth’s family, who went bankrupt in a shady business deal with Polly’s father, Donald Hadley Cass, proposes to Polly.
“Behind Bugs’s back, Polly continues her affair with John Stanley, while she and her family swindle Bugs out of his fortune by selling him the family’s disreputable bond business. When Bugs is featured in Time magazine as the “Beer Baron,” Polly has the excuse to end her engagement and the family plans to leave for Europe immediately. Ruth, who has fallen in love with the ex-gangster, finally tells Bugs the truth about the Casses and confesses that one of their phony bond deals killed her father. Bugs calls in the Chicago mob to even the score, collects his investment from Cass and his partners, and realizes that he is really in love with Ruth.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
There’s enough there, though, in the premise, to make this 85-year-old picture worth watching (which is why I’m featuring it here). But before we get to those positives, we have to address a few of the negatives… On a basic level, the film is only intermittently funny — and those moments tend to come just from our star. So, as a comedy, it’s not a riot like some of our Essentials in this series, and one’s expectations must be adjusted beforehand. Additionally, the romance between Robinson’s character and Astor’s, the real estate agent who loves him, is clichéd, predictable, and not worthy of an otherwise “knowing” film. Why? Well, in large part because Astor’s character is, simply, ill-designed. She spews exposition, says the most obvious things, and isn’t ever as fully developed as our protagonist… Of course, as indicated, this is a running theme in the picture: no one is as amusing, dimensional, or watchable in The Little Giant as Edward G. Robinson, and even though he alone is quite capable of carrying the picture, one gets the sense that this would be a much stronger enterprise if he had more help.
Now, for the strengths. One of them, obviously, is Robinson, who loosens delightfully as he gets to mock and satirize both the image of the cinematic gangster (which he helped create), and that of his own on-screen persona. So, there’s an infectious, and winking, giddiness that he brings to his character, helping to elevate the film’s lighthearted entertainment value considerably… But, as suggested, this is otherwise a knowing picture, for the very idea of casting one of the quintessential celluloid gangsters in a narrative that his him not only “going straight,” but going straight into “high society” (code for rich folk territory), indicates a self-awareness about the actor, the character, and the medium. And this is reflected throughout the script, like in the indulgent use of criminal slang, the somewhat exaggerated homoerotic tension between Robinson and Hopton (which was a running theme in many of ’31’s gangster affairs), and in the climactic spoof of a “hit” sequence, in which his hoodlum pals play polo.
Once again, this is a smart picture that’s commenting on a genre that peaked early and quickly, and then fell out of fashion, leaving its characters and tropes to scatter and cross-pollinate throughout the rest of the popular culture. It’s a somewhat vital watch, in this regard, as a “Gangster Picture” for it is saying something about the genre — where it goes from here — and if you’re a fan of those classics (like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface), The Little Giant is highly recommended… Also, historically, like many of these Pre-Code gems and curios — this picture rests somewhere in between those two categories — it represents a unique time in history: right as Prohibition was ending, but the Depression was still raging, and the nationally renowned mobster had to find another way to make ends meet. (In fact, the film reiterates its socio-historical relevance by opening with a montage of the 1932 Presidential election.) So it’s very of the Pre-Code era, making it an interesting, relevant 76 minutes.