Little Caesar (1931)
May 8, 2020 | by Shannon
Edward G. Robinson Fights for the Lead, Has Trouble with a Machine Gun, Becomes a Superstar Overnight, and Buys a Renoir.
1931’s Little Caesar sparked the public fascination with gangsters on screen. The film holds the distinction of being the first in the holy trinity of gangster films—the other two being The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932)—that inspired countless other movies in the genre.
The characters in Little Caesar were based on real life criminals, and some of them will surprise you! The film also made a superstar of Edward G. Robinson quite literally overnight. There is no doubt that Robinson’s understated yet energetic portrayal of the title character was integral to the film’s record-breaking success.
Now let’s get to the plot!
Edward G. Robinson is Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello, a small time hood who dreams of the big time with his partner in crime, best bud Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) While Rico aspires to be the most respected mob boss of Chicago, Joe wants to be…a dancer. (Joe’s life goal seems a little crazy and out of place right now, but when I tell you who our main characters are based on, it will all make sense!)
“I don’t want no dancing. I’m figuring on making other people dance!”
Rico tells Joe. We can tell right away that these two friends have very different ideas for the future. And somebody’s probably going to get hurt…
A Murder in Chicago
The boys head to Chicago and join a gang. Rico’s clearly got ambitions to take over a leadership position, and his cocky attitude and diminutive size earn him the nickname “Little Caesar.” Meanwhile, Joe’s desire to break with the mob becomes even stronger once he secures a job dancing in a classy nightclub, and falls in love with his beautiful partner, Olga (Glenda Farrell).
Things get complicated for these two friends when Joe witnesses Rico kill the city’s crime commissioner at the club during a robbery. Joe still doesn’t want to be part of the gang, but he also doesn’t want to turn Rico in to the cops.
Rico Moves Up the Mob Ladder
Rico’s killing of the crime commissioner gives him the support and respect he needs to move up in the mob, and he takes over his boss’ job. Rico is soon idolized by the rest of the guys in the gang, particularly Otero (George E. Stone), who begins following him around like a puppy. But Rico’s weak spot is Joe, and though Rico doesn’t want to appear “soft” in the minds of the other gang members, he just can’t seem to discipline Joe for pursuing his dance career over mob activities.
Rico keeps climbing the mob ladder, much to the worry of other mobsters. Rival boss “Little Archie” (Maurice Black) tries to have Rico gunned down on the street, but Rico thinks fast and is barely grazed by the bullets. This just gives him more street credentials, and soon the Chicago mob overlord invites Rico to take over the city’s North Side.
An Impossible Ultimatum
Now that he’s in control of Chicago’s North Side, Rico feels the pressure to deal with Joe’s insubordination. He’s also worried that Joe could potentially squeal to the police that it was Rico who killed the crime commissioner. And Rico is maybe a little jealous that Olga is monopolizing all of Joe’s time.
So Rico gives Joe an ultimatum: break with Olga and join him in a lucrative life of crime, or Rico will kill both Joe and Olga.
Joe wants to get out of town with Olga to avoid this impossible situation, but Olga disagrees, and calls the cops, informing them that Joe will turn state’s evidence against Rico. Police Sergeant Flaherty (Thomas E. Jackson) and his men head over to Joe’s apartment to pick him up, but Rico and Otero get there first!
Despite his quiet rage that his best friend won’t join him, Rico can’t pull the trigger and make good on his threat to kill. Otero then tries to shoot Joe, but Rico messes with his aim, and Joe is merely hit in the arm. Rico and Otero escape from the apartment just before Sergeant Flaherty arrives, though Otero is shot as Flaherty and his men chase the two gangsters down.
Rico manages to escape, and finds a room at a flophouse. The cops are unsuccessful in their attempts to find him, so Sargent Flaherty tries to manipulate Rico into revealing his location, and calls Rico a coward in the newspapers. Rico’s ego is sufficiently bruised, so he calls Flaherty from the flophouse to insult him.
But while Rico is defending his toughness to Sargent Flaherty over the phone, Flaherty has the phone call traced, and discovers where Rico is.
Flaherty and his men track Rico down, and a shootout in the streets ensues. Rico tries to take cover behind a billboard that ironically advertises Joe and Olga as the city’s classiest dance team. But the bullets easily pierce through the billboard and hit Rico.
The End of Rico
The movie ends with one of the most iconic Classic Hollywood lines:
“Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?”
It is, and Rico dies in the streets from which he rose.
The Inspiration Behind Little Caesar
Little Caesar (1931) was the film version of the 1929 novel of the same name by William R. Burnett. Burnett, a prolific young writer, would base his book off of the interesting characters he came across while working as a night clerk in a seedy Chicago hotel. If you remember from my post on Scarface (1932), Burnett’s experiences in Chicago that inspired Little Caesar sound very similar to Scarface author Armitage Trail’s inspiration behind his famous gangster novel. Burnett would write the screenplays for both Little Caesar and Scarface.
The title character of Little Caesar was loosely inspired by notorious gangster, Al Capone. Capone even sent a spy to the film set to make sure that Little Caesar portrayed the gangster world on film to Capone’s satisfaction.
You can imagine how nerve-racking that must have been for the cast and crew!
But two other gangsters were the direct inspiration behind the Rico Bandello and Joe Massara characters: Rico was based on Chicago mobster Salvatore “Sam” Cardinella, and the inspiration behind Joe Massara was none other than gangster-turned-dancer-turned-actor, George Raft! Now Massara’s dream of being a dancer in the film doesn’t seem quite so random, does it?
Rico or Bust!
Edward G. Robinson was actually familiar with the Little Caesar novel before he was even under consideration to star in the film: literary agent Leah Salisbury knew Eddie from her days as a dancer in some of Eddie’s stage shows, and sent him a copy of the book. Salisbury believed her pal Eddie’s small size and dynamic energy were a perfect match for the book’s title character, and was forward thinking enough to see that the book would probably be made into a film.
So when Robinson, now under contract to Warner Bros., was told by producer Hal Wallis that he would play Otero in Little Caesar, Eddie already knew that this supporting role was not the right part for him.
If Robinson was going to be in the film, he would play the lead.
As Eddie says in his autobiography,
“What occurred to me with the utmost finality was that if I were going to get anywhere in this new medium [the movies], I was not about to play bits. I did not ask for star billing; I knew that was a danger to be avoided until the public (and I) considered me a star—but I also knew that third leads and bits were a graveyard.”
Robinson had a lengthy discussion with Hal Wallis about why Rico was the right role for him. Eddie would recount in his autobiography that “rarely had there been so polite and well managed double fury,” so patient were these two men as they expressed their differing viewpoints on what character Robinson should play in the film.
But Robinson biographer Alan L Gansberg [aff. link] would say the discussion between Wallis and Eddie was so impassioned, Wallis saw not Edward G. Robinson before him, but Little Caesar. And after a flawless screen test, the part was his.
Just Another Gangster Role?
Despite all the convincing Eddie had to do before he was officially cast at Rico Bandello, in his autobiography [aff. link], Robinson says that he was pretty certain the brass at Warner Bros. intended to cast him as Rico all along, and that offering him the role of Otero was just an act to get Eddie interested in the film:
“To this day I think it was a ruse. I think Hal always meant for me to play Rico, and his ploy was to soften my rigid backbone.”
Though Robinson fought for the lead over a supporting role in Little Caesar, his backbone did need a little softening to get excited about the film: even at this nascent stage of his movie career, Eddie worried he was already being typecast as a gangster. In the handful of films Robison made before Little Caesar, he almost exclusively played criminals. Eddie longed for his movie roles to be as varied and challenging as his stage roles had been, and Rico Bandello would just be another gangster on Robinson’s growing list.
Robinson Gets Into Character
But Eddie also knew that Rico was an important role in an important film. And the lucrative weekly paycheck from Warner Bros. after the uncertain pay of Broadway was another great incentive Robinson couldn’t deny.
Once Eddie got the role of Rico, he became completely invested in the film, even wearing his own clothes throughout the movie, giving Rico the stylish flare that Robinson himself was known for in real life.
After reading the Little Caesar script, Eddie found that it read like “a literal and undramatized rendering of the novel.” If the film was going to work, if Robinson was going to be successful in it, he would need to find a way to project his character on screen with more than just words. As Eddie himself pinpointed in his book [aff. link],
“I catch on fast, and I could see that the movies were and, by definition had to be, visual and not dependent totally upon verbal communication. This was a strange conclusion for one who had always depended upon words and dialogue. But it was now amply clear to me that a closeup could convey inner thought, that the technique of cutting could provide the aside. And it also came to me…after careful study of the new sound movies, that movies had to move.”
Is anyone else impressed by Robinson’s insights and the perfect articulation of his conclusions?!!
So Eddie went to work creating a Rico Bandello that would almost jump off the screen at the viewer. (If you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about!) That kinetic magnetism and energy I mention in my introduction to Edward G. Robinson is immediately apparent in Little Caesar. Eddie was a natural at making the camera work for him. This is undeniably apparent in the close-up of Rico towards the end of the film when the suspense of whether or not Rico will kill Joe culminates: We see the seething anger, compassion, and confusion in Robinson’s eyes that makes Rico’s struggle real for us, the audience. There’s rarely been more effective use of a close-up to convey inner thought.
Creating An Anti-Hero
Robinson worked further magic with his character by somehow making Rico Bandello, a murderous gangster, likeable, and even relatable.
Director Mervyn LeRoy and Edward G. Robinson were very different men: Robinson was an intellectual who could get quite serious on set because of his investment in the role, while LeRoy was prone to pull pranks and tell jokes behind the scenes despite the seriousness of Little Caesar’s subject matter.
But even before LeRoy and Robinson got used to each other, there was one thing the two men agreed on: Rico Bandello could not be an out and out villain. Eddie and LeRoy were creating one of the screen’s first anti-heroes.
LeRoy said of his vision for the Rico character that
“I gave them [the censors] trouble. I told Eddie that I was trying to make out that Rico was a great man, a powerful man, who knew what he was doing but was not always a villain. Eddie agreed with that.”
Robinson projected this quality expertly in the film. His Rico is a ruthless villain, usurping positions of power from his mentors, and killing in cold blood to get to the top. But at the same time, there is a boyish quality that Robinson brings to the character: Rico admires the finery, the diamond rings and gold watches, of rival mob bosses with an almost childlike desire.
And when the mob overlord informs Rico he’s now in charge of Chicago’s North Side, Robinson’s Rico is so excited and over-eager to please his boss, you’d think he was a young boy trying to make his father proud.
This combination of cold heartedness and boyish charm made audiences kind of like Rico.
A Relatable Anti-Hero
As the film was released during the Great Depression, audiences could also relate to Rico’s struggle to make it to the top. This, coupled with Edward G. Robinson’s skillful and layered performance, made Rico Bandello a character depression era audiences wanted to root for.
With so many struggling to get by, it was kind of nice to see someone rise from the proverbial and literal gutter on screen, even if that person was a gangster who reached his goals through amoral means.
I think Robinson himself best underscored this interesting resonance between moviegoers and Little Caesar in a 1960s interview:
“I probably expressed a feeling that millions of people had about their own lives. I think the popularity of my role can be attributed to the public preoccupation with the American dream of success. Rico was a guy who came from poverty and made it big. Rico make it straight up the ladder and everyone could identify with his climb.”
The Gentle Gangster
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Robinson’s co-star in Little Caesar, said of his friend Eddie in his autobiography [aff. link] that
“Poor Eddie Robinson was type-cast for so long as ‘the tough guy.’ No gentler man ever walked. He hated being villainous, but it paid so well that he was able in time to acquire one of the finest private collections of modern art.”
Gena Rowlands, who would co-star with Robinson on Broadway in 1956, echoed Fairbanks’ assessment, sharing that Eddie
“…was surprisingly gentle for a man who had played so many gangsters. He was one of the most gentle men I have ever know.”
Countless others would share this impression of Robinson over the years, and marvel at the great irony that this gentle man was so good at playing mobsters.
Eddie’s gentle nature made filming the more violent scenes of Little Caesar difficult for both himself and George Daly, the special effects man on the film. Since special effects was still a very new field, Little Caesar would be a pioneer in the way gangster gun violence was portrayed on screen.
Daly had to get creative, and Robinson had to be his brave guinea pig.
Robinson's Run-In with a Machine Gun
Due to the limited special effects techniques for screen violence in 1930, at the end of Little Caesar, when Rico is gunned down by Sergeant Flaherty, Robinson actually had to stand there and have machine gun blanks shot at him.
Now doesn’t that sound safe?
Not to worry though! George Daly suited Eddie up with steel plates, which he would wear on his stomach underneath his clothes, to dull the pain.
Robinson was understandably not super excited to film this scene, and had a hard time staying on his mark as machine gun blanks were shot at him. Steel plates covering your stomach or not, the natural human reaction to machine guns shooting at you IS TO AVOID THE FIRE!
But Robinson and Daly were both pros: Robinson bravely did the scene, and Daly was able to work with his unplanned movements.
Robinson’s gun-shy nature also made the scenes in Little Caesar when he’s the shooter difficult. Try as he might, Eddie could not keep his eyes open while firing the prop gun at the crime commissioner in the film’s crucial scene. So to make Rico Bandello appear a ruthless murderer who didn’t blink when firing, Edward G. Robinson had to have his eyelids taped open.
Irony of ironies!
I think it’s so sweet and endearing that Eddie was such a peaceful and gentle man in real life, even though he could project such menace on screen.
A Smash Hit
Little Caesar completed filming in just 31 days over the summer of 1930. Though the film was easily ready for release by December of that year, Jack Warner wisely decided this was most definitely not a Christmas movie, and held the film over until January 22, 1931, when it premièred at the Strand Theater in New York City.
Word got out quickly that Edward G. Robinson was spectacular in the film, and less than 24 hours after the premiere, lines began to form around the block to the Strand. Policemen were actually brought in to maintain order and break up fistfights of over-eager patrons waiting to see Robinson as Little Caesar.
After a mere eleven screenings, Little Caesar had brought in $50,000 at the box office, a new record for the time. (The average price of a movie ticket in 1931 was $0.35, so the film’s earnings were indeed watershed!)
Edward G. Robinson, the immigrant from Romania who came to the USA not speaking a word of English, the man with unconventional looks who critics predicted would never be a leading man, was officially a movie star.
Eddie would be one of the top six male box office attractions of 1931. His popularity was such that in 1931 alone, The Robinsons earned over $300,000, a far cry from the shaky financial standing Eddie was accustomed to from his years on the stage.
A Hollywood Star
Suddenly, Robinson was shown the deference and respect afforded to movie stars when he and his wife Gladys went out—sometimes this respect was co-mingled with fear by fans who couldn’t completely separate Robinson the man from Little Caesar on screen. And at other times, Robinson was even challenged to fist fights by fans who felt a need to prove they were tougher than Little Caesar!
After the mega success of 1931, Eddie and Gladys celebrated the New Year of 1932 in Paris, where Eddie bought a Renoir, finally able to afford the real deal and not a print, from one of his favorite artists. The famous art collection had begun.
Despite all the financial rewards and approval from his peers and the public, Eddie couldn’t believe just how successful Little Caesar was. As Robinson would say in his autobiography [aff. link],
“I had made a picture called Little Caesar, and, for reasons I leave to social scientists who deal with matter of public taste, it was a hit.”
Eddie felt more than a twinge of guilt at his great success, particularly during a time when so many people the world over were experiencing the effects of the Great Depression.
To, as Eddie puts it in his book, “ease the pain” and guilt of his prosperity, he wisely focused on, and found greater fulfillment, in things unrelated to his celebrity and wealth, such as his marriage, the birth of his son Manny in 1933, and a growing awareness of what was happening outside of Hollywood, namely the rumblings of Word War II in Europe.
Edward G. Robinson may have found success in Hollywood, but he wasn’t about to remain stagnant in his personal life, or rest on the gangster film formula. This would be apparent in the years ahead through his fight for more varied film roles, and his great contributions to the war effort.
Coming Up: A Change of Pace for Robinson
And that wraps up my post on Little Caesar!
And be sure to join me next week as I review Eddie’s comedy turn in one of the first roles that allowed him to stretch beyond his gangster persona.