Saturday, February 09, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Little Caesar (1931)

This evening I watched LITTLE CAESAR, the second film on my list of 10 Classics to see in 2013.

In the past I've tended to shy away from pre-Code gangster movies such as LITTLE CAESAR or THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), gravitating instead to the FBI films of the post-Code era, such as "G" MEN (1935) or the lesser known PUBLIC ENEMY'S WIFE (1936).

I included LITTLE CAESAR on my list of films to see this year as I've become such a fan of pre-Codes; I thought it would fill in a gap in my "movie education" to see the film which made Edward G. Robinson a star, not to mention one of the films which began the gangster genre. When one of the characters is shot and exclaims "I'm done for," I wondered if it could be the first time that now-cliched line was uttered in a film?!

As the movie begins, Rico (Robinson) and his pal Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), having just knocked off a gas station, are eating in a diner. Rico reads about a bigtime mobster in the newspaper and decides that he and Joe will go East, where the action is.

Joe's dream is to be a dancer, and once in the city he tries to break away from crime, establishing a successful nightclub routine with Olga (Glenda Farrell), who also becomes his girlfriend. Rico, on the other hand, is on a fast track up through the mob ranks, ultimately becoming a top man. Then he's got nowhere to go but down again...

Rico, as brought to life by the dynamic Robinson, is certainly an interesting character: He's a total loner, with no friends other than Joe or, later, the admiring syncophant Otero (George E. Stone). Rico is all about money, guns, and the power both provide. He's cunning -- as demonstrated by the diner scene at the outset where he turns the clock back, establishing an alibi -- but his ego is such it apparently never occurs to him that he will ultimately be just as vulnerable as the other men he shoves out of his way on his rise to the top. Rico likes to taunt other men that they can dish it out but can't take it -- yet he ultimately can't really "take it" himself. Rico also has a demented, ruthlessly amoral streak which provides him with a thrill pointlessly offing Crime Commissioner McClure (Landers Stevens); he just has one weak moment near the end which proves to be his undoing.

I'm a big admirer of Douglas Fairbanks Jr., but it struck me that he hadn't yet become the assured, lively performer of just a few years later, when he just about stole THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937). As I mulled it over further, however, I got to thinking that while his acting definitely had a bit of an exaggerated style here -- perhaps rooted in silent movies -- perhaps the lack of confidence I perceived in his performance was simply good acting. Joe begins in the shadow of the more dominant Rico and struggles to be his own man and get free of the mob. Ultimately, Joe is a rather weak pawn between Rico and Olga, with it being Olga who has the courage to risk their lives by calling the police.

The black and white cinematography by Tony Gaudio is often quite striking, particularly in the banquet scene where Rico is honored. Looking down the row of mobsters lined up along the table, one can almost see into the future and the many gangster movies which would emulate LITTLE CAESAR's style.

The ending, with a shootout taking place in front of a billboard heralding Joe and Olga's theatrical success, is poetic -- good is rewarded, evil wiped out -- but perhaps just a mite too convenient. Reading the billboard almost distracts from the action.

I've enjoyed Robinson more as a cagey good guy, in films such as DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) or THE STRANGER (1946), but ultimately I enjoyed seeing LITTLE CAESAR and appreciated many aspects of the film. Though I don't think the gangster film will ever be my favorite genre, I liked it enough that I will probably also try to catch James Cagney in THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931).

LITTLE CAESAR was directed by Mervyn LeRoy. The screenplay, credited to Francis Edwards Faragoh, had several uncredited contributors, according to IMDb; it was based on a novel by W.R. Burnett. Several other Burnett novels were turned into films, and Burnett himself also had a long career as a screenwriter. It runs 79 minutes.

LITTLE CAESAR is available for purchase as a single-title DVD; the DVD is available for rental from either Netflix or ClassicFlix. The DVD is also available as part of two different boxed sets, Warner Gangsters Collection Vol. 1 or TCM's Greatest Gangster Films: Prohibition Era set. Extras include a commentary by Professor Rick Jewell of the University of Southern California, an expert on gangster films.

It was released on VHS back in 1997.

LITTLE CAESAR can also be rented to stream from Amazon Instant Video for $2.99.

LITTLE CAESAR will next be shown on Turner Classic Movies on May 21st, 2013. The trailer is on the TCM website.

Finally, a reminder for any bloggers interested in writing about LITTLE CAESAR this month: You're invited to send me the link to your post, either via the comments or email, and I'll include the link at the end of this post, as well as Tweet each time the post is updated with a new link. I'd love to hear more reactions, opinions, and insights on the granddaddy of gangster films!

Update: Kristina shares her thoughts on LITTLE CAESAR in a terrific post at Speakeasy; her review had me nodding in agreement, as I think I saw the film much as she does. Like Kristina, I was a bit uncertain about Fairbanks' performance, and I also admired the shot of Tony gunned down on the church steps, which was one of the film's most striking images. Kristina also contributes the intriguing info that director LeRoy wanted Clark Gable to play Joe, but Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck didn't go for Gable because of his ears. It's quite interesting to contemplate what Gable might have brought to the role.

Update: At Out of the Past, Raquel shares her impressions of the film along with some good screen caps of key scenes. As Raquel illustrates, the film has great sets and fashion. And I love early talkies that still use title cards, it was an interesting transitional era in films. Great point that OCEAN'S 11 (1960) emulates LITTLE CAESAR with its New Year's Eve heist! So glad you joined me in watching LITTLE CAESAR this month, Raquel.


Blogger Crocheted Lace said...

Um... No comments om the pre-code homosexual subtext ?
Rico's contempt when Joe gets a girlfriend? The sycophant Otero rolling on the bed and gushing over Rico in his fine clothes? The fact that Rico will have nothing to do with women?
The fact that the novel's author WR Burnett complained to the studio that the screenplay made his character gay?
The fact that Joe seems to be the only person Rico has any affection for?

9:46 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

No, no comments from me there...I was focused more on Rico's utter loneliness and isolation, with the lack of more than a couple friendships, period. I didn't read anything "extra" into Rico's feelings for Joe, in particular.

When it comes to Otero, I suppose one could see his admiration for Rico in that way...or not! Like good books, good films sometimes lend themselves to more than one interpretation, or strike one different ways when seen at different times. I was unaware of the author's complaint to the studio. :)

Best wishes,

9:55 PM  
Blogger dfordoom said...

I didn't notice the homosexual subtext either.

Little Caesar is my favourite out of the three classic pre-code gangster pictures. The Public Enemy is very good, if only for Cagney's stunning performance. The third of this triumvirate, Howard Hawks' Scarface, is unfortunately ruined by Paul Muni's awful acting.

6:22 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

I believe Crocheted Lace has it absolutely right about Rico and Joe. And I think this accounts for Joe's "weakness" that you rightly got on to as something Fairbanks correctly played in the role. I see Joe as having at least some awareness of Rico's never spoken homoerotic attachment to him and just doesn't know how to deal with it. I think all this adds a lot to the movie and is done quite knowingly.

I assure you Fairbanks, Jr. was already a fine actor as you'll see when you see Hawks' The Dawn Patrol which came out the same year as Little Caesar and in which he is even better. By the way, there is a male love story in that film too, between Fairbanks and Richard Barthelmess, but it's a much healthier one because the two men care about each other on a deep level, are genuinely tender with each other and concerned for the other--it's very affecting.

By the way, do you think that Fairbanks simply "almost stole" The Prisoner of Zenda--I always thought he pretty decisively ran away with it, and I do like the whole movie but he was sensational.

I like Little Caesar and think you were fair with it. For me gangster movies are somehow innately depressing, and I trace this feeling back to double bill of Public Enemy & Little Caesar I saw as a kid. But that doesn't mean they should be ignored. Some great films in the gangster genre.

Laura, I would encourage you if you want to see another one from the period, skip Public Enemy at least for now and instead see Scarface (speaking of Howard Hawks again). It is better than either of the others and arguably remains the greatest gangster film every made (and again has a sexual subtext in the main relationship, though not between two men this time, that is quite famous and kind of makes the movie).

Really, I assure you, Laura, that is the one gangster movie every classic film fan should make a point of seeing. It wouldn't be a bad choice for your list next year if you don't see it before.

(Just read dfordoom's comment after writing this and obviously I don't agree--Cagney and Robinson are both great in their films here, but so is Muni in Scarface, along with everyone else in the cast there--even George Raft).

1:27 PM  
Blogger dfordoom said...

I think people today are determined to read homosexual subtexts into everything, so every friendship between men automatically becomes homoerotic. It's become an obsession. There are a few films from that era that really do have such subjects (Gilda being the outstanding example) but i most cases I think it's just wishful thinking.

2:03 PM  
Blogger dfordoom said...

Paul Muni is a controversial subject. You either love him or you hate him. Personally I think he's embarrassingly hammy, even in his most-praised film (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang). But them I seem to be one of the few people who think I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a bad movie.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

This is a rather fascinating conversation. Apparently there's a way to interpret this film on an entirely different level than I had picked up on! :) I'm a great admirer of Rick Jewell and plan to listen to his commentary, and when I do I'll turn on the subtitles and see if the movie comes across any differently when I take a second look. Given my respect for Blake's knowledge, in particular, I have to give his opinion a lot of credence.

Blake, the only reason I didn't say Fairbanks "stole ZENDA outright" is that it has such a fabulous cast -- in particular I also find David Niven a lot of fun in a smaller part. :) But yes, I'd have to say that the bottom line is you're right, Fairbanks was definitely sensational in that and it may well be his best screen performance. Saying he ran away with it sounds fair to me!

Thanks much to all for the input on THE PUBLIC ENEMY and SCARFACE. Muni hasn't done much for me when I've come across him in the past, but my exposure to him is minimal, and the Hawks name goes a long way to induce me to at least try it. I have PUBLIC ENEMY on hand in the same "Gangsters" DVD set as LITTLE CAESAR, and I just added SCARFACE to my ClassicFlix queue. Thanks!

I appreciate everyone's contributions to the conversation thus far!

Best wishes,

4:58 PM  
Blogger Crocheted Lace said...

I can assure you, I am very tired of people reading gay subtexts into things. I don't look for it and I'm not interested in revisionism. So when even I notice it I figure there is something to it. It's also why I mentioned that author WR Burnett complained about it when the film was made.
It's like catching on to drug use in pre-code films. It's an interesting subtext they could get away with.
I agree with dfordoom about Muni's hamminess. I find him hard to watch. For example, despite my fondness for Bette Davis, Brian Aherne, Claude Rains, I can't watch "Juarez" because of Muni's cringe making performance. The only things I ever liked Muni in are 'Fugitive From a Chain Gang' and 'Scarface'. I assumed Muni's real forte was the stage.

7:16 PM  
Blogger Silver Screenings said...

I didn't pick up on the homosexual subtext of this movie, either. But this conversation underscores the beauty of blogging - there is so much to say about classic movies! Ten people could review the same movie and focus on entirely different things. One person can't say it all; otherwise, you'd have a book.

7:19 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for the added comments, Crocheted Lace and Silver Screenings, I appreciate it.

I think Silver Screenings has it exactly right -- "this conversation underscores the beauty of blogging - there is so much to say about classic movies! Ten people could review the same movie and focus on entirely different things."

Love that! So true, and it's a great reason I value the conversations which often take place here after I watch and write about a movie -- I love reading other takes, which give me additional things to think about as I reflect back on a film, as well as things to watch for on future viewings.

Best wishes,

7:38 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

I agree with Crotched Lace again about two things in her followup.

1) I'm not a fan of Paul Muni for his whole career. In those Warners bios, he entered a "Great Actor" phase with a lot of actorish impersonations and that kind of thing mostly leaves me unmoved. But I like him in the same two movies--Scarface and Chain Gang--that CL does, his first ones before he became that prestigious but overrated actor.

2) It's very true that gay subtexts are read back into too many movies, and that's purely a contemporary perspective. But like CL I have no "wishful thinking" about this so simply see it when it's there. It's not as if homosexuality was not always part of the world and filmmakers knew this, so like much else in classical cinema (pre-code and post-code both) it needed more or less indirection if it was going to be in a movie. So it's my view we should try to discern what is there, and again, I'm not especially invested in this myself but just want to understand any movie as best as I can. In the case of Little Caesar, I agree we're talking about something fairly obvious.

Gay advocates might complain that gay subtexts and gay characters are so often attached to criminals and murderers and movies about these things (from Little Caesar to Desert Fury to Rope and Strangers on a Train to The Big Combo), but this doesn't bother me if they are well-realized characters and good movies. And sometimes, there is an interesting twist--for example Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman in The Big Combo are hired killers but they have the most loving and devoted relationship in the movie.

11:10 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

One more thing about this--I mentioned a male relationship in The Dawn Patrol before. But I didn't say those two men--the Barthelmess and Fairbanks characters--were gay and wouldn't say so even though I would describe it as a male love story and I'm sure Hawks would agree.

Hawks gave a certain amount of play to homoeroticism in his movies, more than most directors, and it does mean something at times, but definitely not in every male relationship in his movies. I have never heard anyone describe Chance and Dude that way in Rio Bravo and this is probably the most moving male friendship in Hawks; they do love each other, and the action of the film bears this out, but as devoted friends.

So returning to The Dawn Patrol, I feel this--it's wartime with death close by and there are no women around. Even if the relationship is not actually sexual, the warm and loving nature of the two men makes them naturally attach their feelings to someone and so because of the situation it's to each other. I see them as heterosexual men, but sexuality has a lot of shades and isn't always absolute. The two men are very tender with each other--I would have to say loving--especially evident in their last scene (don't want to give this away here)--and it's very affecting. I think classical filmmakers like Hawks (see also Wellman in Wings) were secure enough in their identity to be comfortable with something like this. Now, in movies, you just mostly have to be gay or straight--and there's a lot less humanity there.

11:22 PM  
Blogger dfordoom said...

I think Crocheted Lace is right - Muni comes across as a stage actor. Which in fact he was. And he was obviously one of those stage actors who never succeeded in adapting his acting to the demands of the screen.

The problem is not his overacting - Cagney overacted and got away with it. But Cagney's overacting seems natural for the larger-than-life characters he portrayed, while Muni's overacting seems phony.

1:54 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Enjoyed your additional thoughts, Blake and DforDoom!

I can at least say I caught on to the relationships in ROPE and THE BIG COMBO, even if I didn't notice anything going on in LITTLE CAESAR (grin). Thought it was especially interesting how much was communicated about the relationships in ROPE without actually spelling it all out.

Best wishes,

3:30 PM  

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