Directed By: Mervyn LeRoy
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Glenda Farrell
Line from this film: "I don't want no dancin'... I figure in makin' other people dance"
Trivia: Warner Brothers' head of production, Darryl F. Zanuck, decided to make this film after one of his close friends was killed by a bootlegger
Though not the first American gangster movie ever made (most agree that honor belongs to D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley), Little Caesar kicked off a series of films that focused on the anti-hero, a criminal whose fearlessness and fortitude carried him to the top, making him king of the underworld. Usually lumped together with The Public Enemy (released later that same year) and Scarface (1932), Little Caesar made a lot of people sit up and take notice, and not everyone liked what they were seeing.
Two petty hoods, Cesare Enrico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) and Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), tired of working in the sticks for chump change, head to the city, where they hope to make a name for themselves. For Massara, that means leaving the criminal life behind and becoming a professional dancer. Paired with the lovely Olga (Glenda Farrell), Joe headlines at a posh nightclub, and before long is a big star. As for his pal, Cesare Enrico (who likes to be called “Rico” for short), he wants one thing and one thing only: power! Starting out as the muscle in a gang headed by Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields), Rico’s blinding ambition and tough-as-nails mentality (as well as his knack for knocking off the competition) helps him rise through the ranks. But along with the power comes notoriety, and before long police Sergeant Flaherty (Thomas Jackson), who’s sworn to take down the city’s criminal element, comes gunning for Rico. Will the pugnacious hood remain on top, or is this the end of Cesare Enrico Bandello?
Aside from initiating the Hollywood gangster craze, Little Caesar is the film that made Edward G. Robinson a star. A diminutive actor hailing from Bucharest, Romania, Robinson brought a calculated determination, as well as the feistiness of a rabid dog, to the role of Rico, and in so doing made him the most charismatic character in the entire film (even an actor as experienced as Douglas Fairbanks Jr. seems boring when compared to Robinson’s portrayal of Rico). From the get-go, we know exactly what Rico is after, and never once does he veer from that path. It isn’t even the money he wants; he tells Joe early on that it’s the power he’s after, the knowledge that he’s on top, and people will obey his every command. This is what drives Rico to kill and steal, and watching his meteoric rise is what makes Little Caesar such a fascinating motion picture.
As it was with Cagney in The Public Enemy and Paul Muni in Scarface, Robinson’s performance ensured that the lawless Rico was the focal point of Little Caesar, a fact that didn’t sit well with either the censors or the moral majority (at one point, the American Legion, fearing their influence, threatened to boycott all gangster films). But try as they might to change the tide of public opinion, American audiences connected with these anti-heroes, who used tenacity alone to climb the ladder of success. It didn’t even matter if Johnny Law won out in the end; for a while, Little Caesar’s Rico, The Public Enemy’s Tom Powers, and Scarface’s Tony Camonte were on top of the world looking down on the rest of us, and for audience members still dealing with the Great Depression, this taste of victory, however brief, was surely better than what the world was offering them.