Daily Archives: December 6, 2015

Little Caesar (1931)


*. Of the Big Three early gangster films (the others being The Public Enemy and Scarface), Little Caesar strikes me as the oddest.
*. It’s based on the novel of the same name by W. R. Burnett, which was a big bestseller loosely based on the story of Al Capone. But on screen it was transformed, in part because of issues with the censors but also as a result of a pretty free degree of interpretation.
*. The most obvious, and notorious, example of this has to do with Rico’s sexuality. Is he gay? I know some people who object to anyone even raising the point, seeing it as part of some sort of revisionist cultural agenda, but the fact is Burnett himself received this impression, and objected to the way Rico was portrayed (though he was impressed with Robinson’s performance).
*. Given the impossibility of directly addressing the issue at the time, I think this movie does go as far as it could in this direction. Rico has no time for women himself, though in all fairness he also stays away from booze. Instead, he seems mainly set on being a snappy dresser with lots of bling. (Capone liked nice clothes and women; the two passions aren’t exclusive.)


*. Rico also has a crush on Joe Massara, and they make a compelling couple. I found it odd that Richard Jewell, in his DVD commentary, says that Clark Gable (who was originally suggested for the part) would have made a better Joe because he was a tougher, less polished, less elegant guy than Douglas Fairbanks Jr. But Joe is less of a tough guy than Rico, and should appear more elegant. He is a professional dancer, after all.



*. Then there is the fawning of Otero, which includes his crawling into bed with Rico at one point. Just hero worship, or something more? People point to the tailor scene where Rico is getting fitted for a tux (and which opens, I have seen it suggested, with Otero in a position that suggests he is fellating his boss). Compare the end of that scene, where Rico oddly adopts a mincing, feminine pose for Otero, with the tailor scene in The Public Enemy, where Cagney threatens violence on the obviously gay tailor.
*. Give credit to Edward G. Robinson for inflecting Rico with this kind of subtlety. Actually, give credit to Robinson for everything good here. As Jewell remarks, his performance carries a “not so great” movie, and “transcends the rest of the film.” He’s not a cool killer at all but as jittery as a can of jumping beans, always reaching for his gat or popping out of his seat to go dashing off somewhere or put someone in their place. That nervous energy and lines bitten through the horizontal zipline of his mouth make him the constant focus of attention.
*. Was he deliberately cast against a pair of stolid bores? Fairbanks is a dull straight man, while Thomas Jackson’s Flaherty is even less emotive. Flaherty is a polarizing role, I find. Some people love him, but to me he seems too laid back, appearing to run out of energy halfway through some of his lines. But then perhaps that makes him the perfect foil for Rico. They’re both almost caricatures.


*. I thought the character of Joe Massara conventional and a bit unconvincing, but apparently he was based on George Raft. So there I go.
*. In the original script there is mention of Rico holding his comb at the end, but I don’t see it on screen. I think the comb was supposed to be one of his tics, like Tom Powers’s short jab, but it got dropped along the way. But it’s more evidence of how Rico does like to preen. He can’t even resist getting his picture taken despite being warned about this. And the way he struts down the street the next morning, holding an armful of newspapers with his picture in them, is wonderful.
*. Another odd thing about the film is the heist of the Bronze Peacock. I’ll admit the first time I saw this I thought Joe was just imagining what might happen if he went along with the gang’s plan. It has so much of that dream quality about it. For example, we never see Joe give the high sign to the gang that all’s clear, which was supposed to be his job. Then everything happens in a series of overlapping dissolves, as though in a dream sequence.


*. But at least that heist shows the gang doing something. On the commentary Jewell makes an interesting point about something that was bugging me: the film “completely leaves out Prohibition.” Indeed Rico, quite conspicuously, doesn’t even drink. Aside from robbing each other it’s not clear what sort of rackets the gang is involved in.
*. Was there a problem with censors? They may have just been playing it safe. On the other hand, I was surprised to see a policeman actually being gunned down. This is easy to miss (it’s dark and foggy), but Rico clearly shoots the cop that kills Otero.


*. This just goes to show what a bad ass Rico is. Cagney’s Tom Powers has some redeeming features, but aside from his awkward affection for and loyalty to Joe, Rico has none. He’s just a tough, and perhaps even a psychopath. In comparison, the “yellow” driver Tony is given a scene with his mother where he explains his breakdown and which gives him humanity. And Joe of course has a girlfriend. But Rico has no family except for the hag-like Ma Magdalena (veteran actress Lucille La Verne, who would go on to provide the voice for the evil witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). Jewell explains how the “sociological” gangster film, which sought to explain criminals, was still a few years away. But there were more well-rounded gangsters at the time. I think Rico just doesn’t have any depth. There’s nothing to explain, no story to tell.
*. Is it surprising then that his goals in life are so empty? He wants the beautiful things other people have: their rings, stick pins, nice clothes and even nicer houses. But these things mean nothing to him except as cosmetics and accessories. They’re only gangster style. What we get at the end isn’t so much the wages of sin as the morning after the romance of capital.