Thursday, February 26, 2015

Little Caesar

The gangster film rose to prominence in pre-Hayes code 1930s Hollywood. You've likely heard of 1931's SCARFACE, which lead to an ultraviolent remake fifty years later, but what about 1932's LITTLE CAESAR, a tight, involving crime drama featuring Edward G. Robinson as the titular character in his screen debut?

Caesar Enrico Bandello, aka "Rico" dreams big as he and partner Joe (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) pull small time jobs like sticking up service stations. Rico, like many before and after him, wants to be "somebody". It isn't long before he's in Chicago, joined a gang, and risen through the ranks, proving himself to be a fierce competitor to rivals.  Rico will eventually take control of the entire North Side of the city.  There are failed attempts on his life, one of which should've been a sure fire hit, but he escapes with a mere shoulder graze.  Is it luck? Something supernatural?

Joe wants out. He dreams of a career as a dancer, perhaps marrying his partner Olga (Glenda Farrell), herself none too fond of the life of crime.  Of course, Rico wants/needs his friend to help with the dirty business.  There will be resistance, divided emotions. Speeches about loyalty. A failure to pull the trigger at a key moment. Classic conflict.

LITTLE CAESAR is a mostly riveting, compact early gangster drama.  Lean, economical, and iconic. Despite that, not all that well known.  Director Mervyn Leroy stages the drama with just enough panache and Francis Edward Faragoh's screenplay (Darryl Zanuck is one of the uncredited contributors) invites viewers to compare its mafiosos to corporate America titans like Carnegie.  Robinson's diminutive stature and creepy voice only add to the imposing figure he cuts through each scene.  He may not have achieved the fame of Jimmy Cagney or Paul Muni, but he sears the screen. His final line should've joined the cinematic lexicon ala "Frankly Scarlett..." and so many others.

I happened upon LITTLE CAESAR one night on Turner Classic Movies, the second half of a double feature of the original SCARFACE, just like it might've been in theaters in the good old days.  As I've said many times, thank God for this network.  It's one of the few reasons not to pull the plug on cable television.   Al a carte, please!

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