…And it all began with this early “talking picture”, with a running time of a mere 1:18:22. Here’s a spoiler-filled recap! So, if ya don’t want spoilers, leave now, see? Mnyaah!
“Little Caesar” is the story of Caesar Enrico Bandello and his cohort Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr. ), small-time hoods who knock-off gas stations just to get by. Each aspires to something greater. Rico fancies himself a big-time gangster. Joe wants to give up crime and become a dancer (…yes, really!)
Rico uses Joe’s position at the nightclub to pull a brazen New Year’s Eve robbery as the club patrons celebrate. In the process, Rico murders one of the city’s top cops. Joe wants out, but Rico will have none of that – not when he’s about to make his move. On leaving crime behind, Joe laments to Olga: “I’ve never seen the guy who could get away with it yet!”
With the successful heist, and using Boss Vettori’s objections to the cop killing as an opportunity to sway members of the gang, Rico takes over the Vettori mob. He maneuvers his way up another level or two to become “Little Caesar” – delivering such great lines as: “If anyone turns yellow, and squeals, my gun’s gonna speak its piece!”, “If you ain’t outta here by tomorrow morning, ya won’t ever leave it, except in a pine box! and "I’m takin’ over this territory! From now on, it’s mine!”
Rico’s savagery and quick trigger propels his rise to the top. Wanting a clean life for herself and Joe, Olga desperately phones the police to have Joe claim that Rico was behind the fatal New Year’s Eve shooting and robbery. Rico gets word of this and goes to shoot Joe before the police arrive to take his statement. …But, surprisingly, he cannot murder his old friend. He runs, as the rest of his gang is arrested.
His final words: “Mother of Mercy… Is this the end of Rico?”
As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.
Beyond the above-mentioned inaccurate cover image, there aren’t really any “CONs” to list. When Warner Home Video was great (as they were during this release period), they were GREAT! So, let’s move on to…
The Film: Not only are we witnessing both film history and an iconic performance by Edward G. Robinson (…that is still homaged and satirized to this day), but the presentation is as sharp, clear, and perfect as an 81 year-old film could possibly be! …Yes, I said “81 year-old film”!
• Edward G. Robinson as “Rico”/ “Little Caesar”.
• Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as “Joe”.
• Glenda Farrell as “Olga”.
• Stanley Fields as “Sam Vettori”.
• Thomas Jackson as “Sgt. Flaherty”.
Theatrical Trailer for “Little Caesar”: This was too early in the game for the expected narration by Robert C. Bruce (In fact, there was no voiceover whatsoever!), so we settle for animation of a tommy-gun and a pistol “crossing animated fire” resulting in large text exploding across the screen. Considering it was 1930, this was actually quite good and effective. I’ll assume Leon Schlesinger’s studio did the animation.
In the text, the film is described as a “picturization” of the novel upon which it was based. If “picturization” was ever a word, in even moderately common usage, it has certainly faded into antiquity now. Want proof? My spell-checker refuses to recognize it as a word!
Commentary Track by Richard Jewell (USC Professor) Jewell’s observations include:
• “Little Caesar” opens, not with dialogue, but with a gunshot (Rico and Joe’s gas station holdup), punctuating the new era of sound.
• Rico, like the rest of us, merely aspires to the “American Dream” – only as a gangster.
• Warner Bros. Pictures specialized in “gritty” over “glamorous”.
• The “Joe Massara” character was based on actor George Raft who, in real life, broke away from the underworld to become an entertainer.
• Edward G. Robinson was born in Romania, and came to the US at age nine.
• “Little Caesar” was banned in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia – and the Pennsylvania State Censorship Board cut some of the brandishing of guns.
• Gangsters were regarded as appealing to Depression Era audiences, especially those who defied Prohibition.
Warner Night at the Movies: Not so long ago, when Warner was the BEST DVD PRODUCER of them all, it offered the outstanding “Warner Night at the Movies” with select DVD packages. I couldn’t be more pleased, when I uncover one of these gems!
Warner expertly reconstructs the movie-going experience of the day as a viewing option for “Little Caesar”. The film may be viewed as part of the entire program, on its own, or the viewer may pick and choose among the included items.
An optional introduction to the program by film historian Leonard Maltin is quite valuable in putting the presentation in its historical perspective – helping modern viewers to best appreciate the experience.
The program consists of:
• A theatrical trailer for “Five Star Final”: The next picture for Edward G. Robinson – in which he plays a newspaperman for a scandal sheet. Also in this trailer is an uncredited appearance by Boris Karloff.
• Newsreel: (Runs 01:44) From “Hearst Metrotone News”... “Legs Diamond’s Girl Talks after Gunman is Slain. Boston American Reporter Interviews Kiki Roberts, Ex-Follies Dancer”. Well… THAT certainly tells you all you need to know! A look at the sad side of real-life gangster culture. Nice thematic linkage with the main feature.
• “The Hard Guy”: (Runs 06:25) A very young Spencer Tracy stars in this mini-drama about a struggling Hell’s Kitchen family man in the depression (…which, let us not forget, was in full force at the time!). My past experiences with “Warner Night at the Movies” led me to expect a comedy short. Instead, this was an interesting surprise that was more like a short story with a twist ending. This short is introduced with a “pennant”, rather than the WB Shield”, as is “Little Caesar”.
“The Hard Guy” was filmed at the Warner Bros. Brooklyn (!) studio, and was released under the banner of “Vitaphone Varieties” (Along with “First National Pictures”, “Looney Tunes”, “Merrie Melodies”, “Vitaphone Melody Masters”, and who knows how many more… Warner Bros. sure had a lot of banners for different products.)
…And, at a length of 06:25, this was actually SHORTER than the cartoon that followed it!
• “Lady Play Your Mandolin”: (Runs 07:14) A Merrie Melodies cartoon starring “Foxy”. A Hugh Harman – Rudolf Ising cartoon production. Abe Lyman’s Brunswick Recording Orchestra (Was Carl Stalling with Disney at the time?) Leon Schlesinger – Producer.
Little Caesar: End of Rico, Beginning of the Antihero”: (Runs 17:06).
Warner has produced a number of these mini-documentaries for its various gangster collections, but this 2005 feature is certainly one of the best! Chock full of information on the film, the times, the actors, and the studio.
Film critic Gerald Peary describes “Little Caesar” as the “…the Anti-American Dream story”, noting that “…We can tumble as quickly as we rise.”
Film historian Dr. Drew Casper observes that other studios produced “romantic idealism”, while Warner Bros, “…tuned its attention to persons outside of society – outlaws and gangsters”, and that Jack Warner and Daryl F. Zanuck were fond of “…the arc of the topical gangster”.
• Clark Gable was once considered for the role of Rico, and later for the role of Joe, but was rejected by Jack Warner for his “big ears”. Gable went to MGM… and managed to do rather nicely for himself in the end.
Other participants include: Martin Scorsese (Director of “Goodfellas”), authors Robert Sklar and Mark A. Vieira, filmmaker Alain Silver, and (on film) a contribution by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
“Re-Release Foreword”: (Runs 0:43) Later on, both “Little Caesar” and James Cagney’s “The Public Enemy” were re-released as a twin-bill. With Hollywood taking a more conservative stance on gangster films, and the glorification of crime in general, this video disclaimer was offered before the show:
“Perhaps the toughest of the gangster films, ‘Public Enemy’ and ‘Little Caesar’ had a great effect on public opinion. They brought home violently the evils associated with prohibition and suggested the necessity of a nation-wide house cleaning. Tom Powers in ‘Public Enemy’ and Rico in ‘Little Caesar’ are not two men, nor are they merely characters – they are a problem that sooner or later we, the public, must solve.”
Warner supplies us with an interesting curio of the times that has it modern-day equivalent on the warnings it rightly adds to its classic animation DVD collections, concerning the attitudes and prejudices that were prevalent when the animated shorts were produced.