Monday, March 21, 2011

DVD Review: Little Caesar (1930)

Little Caesar (1930)

(Released: 2005 by Warner Home Video)
Another looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

Mnyaah! I’ll be somebody!” -- The great Edward G. Robinson in the seminal Warner Bros. film “Little Caesar”.

It isn’t often that one is witness to the “creation” of something big. But, Robinson, director Mervyn LeRoy, and the Warner Bros. studio machine, for all intents and purposes, “created” the Gangster Film – and, if not the “Gangster Film”, certainly the “Gangster Genre” – with “Little Caesar”.

While gangsters had been the subject of a number of silent-era films, “Little Caesar” is the film that put them on the map. (…At least I didn’t say: “Made Them Number One with a Bullet!”) Many successful films, starring the likes of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and of course, Robinson would follow in its wake. Our collective fascination with gangsters would continue into “The Godfather Trilogy”, “Goodfellas”, “The Sopranos”, and beyond.

…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!)

They head to Chicago where Rico hooks up with the mob of mid-level boss Sam Vettori, and Joe becomes a professional dancer in a nightclub. There, Joe meets another dancer, Olga, and they fall in love. Rico, on the other hand, “falls in love with his gun”, and is quick to use it. A bit too quick for the comfort of Vettori who, nevertheless, admires Rico’s… um, moxie.

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.

At rock bottom, in a flop-house, Rico reads in the paper of the police calling him “yellow”, and daring him to show himself. He takes the bait, and is shot dead (ironically behind a billboard for the act of Joe and Olga).

His final words: “Mother of Mercy… Is this the end of Rico?”

Warner Bros. answers him with the words “THE END”, as we fade out! Gosh, that sounds like something Tex Avery or Bob Clampett might have done to end a Warner Bros. cartoon, doesn’t it? Oh, well… he deserved it, and at least it didn’t end with “That’s All Folks”!

Two additional oddities: “Little Caesar” must have been so early in Warner Bros. history that the Warner Bros Shield does not appear to introduce the film. Instead, there is the image of a PENNANT reading: “A First National Talking Picture”! …MAN, that’s early!

The cover of the DVD set shows Edward G. Robinson as Rico brandishing a tommy-gun. Actually, though Rico is anything but shy about introducing bodies to bullets, he never once uses such a weapon. Handguns, for more close-up killing, were more his style. Though, oddly, the police use a “chopper” to bring him down at film’s end.

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”!

The Cast:

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”.

Menus: Menus are easy to navigate, and are nicely illustrated with images of Rico and other characters from the film. The Main Menu has a particularly nice subtle touch: There are images of Rico drawing his gun and Joe and Olga romantically among a fluffy field of clouds – enhanced by “wispy digital effects” to indicate both the smoke from Rico’s gun and the dreamy quality of Joe and Olga’s clouds. Oh, and for the record, the image DOES NOT indicate that Rico SHOT Joe and Olga, despite my description of it.

Extra Features:

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.

• Hollywood censorship activities would eventually change the emphasis of films from the “heroic gangster” to the crime fighter. This is particularly evident in 1936’s “Bullets or Ballots(See that review HERE!)

• Jewell draws parallels between Rico and real-life gangster Al Capone – as well as the rise and fall of Julius Caesar.

• Though unequivocally dead at the end of “Little Caesar”, Edward G. Robinson appears to have REVIVED the character of Rico, as “Johnny Rocco”, in 1948’s “Key Largo”. (See that review HERE!) In my own opinion, “Rocco” is certainly what “Rico” would have become, had he survived. (…Apparently, it wasn’t “…the end of Rico” after all!)

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.

The WB Shield and Pennant introduce our interlude with Foxy, who looks just like Mickey Mouse but with a fox’s ears and tail! Not to mention that the “lady” who “plays [her] mandolin” is also a duplicate of Minnie Mouse, with the same add-ons.

As one might expect for the time, the cartoon is a typically plot-less affair that exists only for the sake of some tenuously connected music-oriented gags – and to further put Warner-owned songs before the public. Still, it’s professionally done – and it’s cute! Oh, and a horse gets drunk and whoops it up! …Good for him!

The Film Itself:  If I haven’t praised “Little Caesar”, enough already – yes, I’ve come to PRAISE “Caesar”, not to BURY him – allow me to do it once more. This is one heck of a film – especially when one considers the “very recent” technical advances that it reflects. It is the film and the role that made Edward G. Robinson the icon he remains to this day!

Other Extra Features Include:

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”.

In consideration of “Little Caesar” as an early talkie, film critic Andrew Sarris notes: “The two genres that really profited from the coming of sound were the musical, of course, and the gangster film – because you could hear the gunfire!” To this, Dr. Drew Casper adds: “It really couldn’t crystallize as fiercely as it did, if it weren’t for sound on film.”

Additionally, the feature reveals:

• The Hollywood Production Codes, that so affected Robinson’s “Bullets or Ballots”, would be instituted within three years of “Little Caesar”.

• Edward G. Robinson was cast due to his resemblance to real-life Chicago gangster Al Capone – upon whom the novel “Little Caesar” was based.

• 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.

• Rico’s death scene was originally to contain the line Mother of GOD… Is this the end of Rico?”, but was changed to Mother of MERCY… Is this the end of Rico?” in the final draft. And it is noted that Rico was played as genuinely shocked that he could ever have met such an inglorious end. That being the reason for such a memorable closing line.

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.


Little Caesar” is an amazing piece of work, given the time in which it was created. Viewing it from that perspective makes it difficult to believe that how rapidly the techniques of cinema had advanced in such a short period of time. “Little Caesar” is also a seminal work of the gangster genre and, along with James Cagney’s subsequent “The Public Enemy”, defined the gangster film. It’s a well-preserved piece of film history, where “rods”, “gats” (…but no “roscoes”) abound… and one great story, to boot! Seen in the context of “Warner Night at the Movies”, it is a truly remarkable experience!

It is highly recommended for fans of Edward G. Robinson, gangster films and crime drama in general, and enthusiasts or scholars of the early sound-era of Hollywood.


Chris Barat said...


In Scott Eyman's bio of Cecil B. DeMille, it's mentioned that DeMille's first feature, THE SQUAW MAN, was officially described as being "picturized" rather than "directed." Since THE SQUAW MAN was originally a stage play, I gather that "picturization" was an early word for what we'd now call "adaptation for the screen."


Joe Torcivia said...

That certainly makes sense, Chris – and is pretty much as I figured it to be.

What’s notable here, is that the word “picturization” must have receded completely into history, as I’ve neither seen nor heard it in use at any time in my life – and that multiple spell-checkers do not recognize it as a word.

Though, clearly, it was in common use at the time!

Anonymous said...

1931's Little Caesar Is One Of My Favorite Films, I Have A DVD Of This Film That's From 2005 In My DVD Collection In My Room.