Even though it set the “rise and fall” structure of the gangster film, Little Caesar feels stilted when stacked up against its tougher depression-era contemporaries: Howard Hawks’s Scarface and The Public Enemy starring James Cagney. There are no moments of vivid ferocity here. Despite Edward G. Robinson’s memorably smarmy turn as the wildly ambitious pint-sized thug Caesar Enrico Bandello, Little Caesar plays with kid gloves. The gangland violence is kept to a discreet minimum, drawing its momentum from observing Robinson munching on cigars, bossing around his wooden co-stars, and gloating in corpulent joy as he moves up the mob ladder. The subplot involving would-be thug turned professional dancer Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is so entirely lacking in heat that he and love interest Olga (Glenda Farrell) only succeed in blending in with the wallpaper. The rest of the company includes stock characters like the tough Irish cop and the medium-level mob boss with no backbone—and if they innovated the clichés that defined a genre, they never succeed in pushing the envelope like the thinly veiled incest of Scarface, or the smash-your-face bullying and brutality of The Public Enemy. Still, Little Caesar endures because of Robinson, not so much because he’s tough but because he’s got a Napoleon-sized ego and a schoolboy’s smile when things are going his way. He enjoys living like a rich pig so much, we’ve got to mourn his loss when he’s sent back to the gutter. Inevitably riddled with bullets in the grand finale, the pudgy Robinson earns our wholehearted sympathy when he sighs into the darkness, “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?” Perhaps we mourn his loss all the more because he’s the only true thing in Little Caesar worth giving a damn about.
Little Caesar looks better now than ever before, though dirt and scratches are still painfully noticeable. The blacks and whites hold up remarkably well in this transfer, though, so it seems Warner did the best job they could and beggars can't be choosers. The mono audio track is likewise cleaned up, and only suffers from the usual tin-ear deficiencies of studio pictures from the dawn of the sound era.
There's a helpful talking-heads featurette entitled "Little Caesar: End of Rico, Beginning of the Antihero" that puffs up Little Caesar a little more than it deserves. It does offer a fleeting glimpse into the real Edward G. Robinson, an erudite and classy man called upon to play uneducated, sweaty thugs. Film historians and Martin Scorsese have ample opportunity to share their love, though I wonder if their garrulous over-enthusiasm is a bit disingenuous. The commentary by Richard B. Jewell is informative, particularly when discussing the few scenes of violence and how the Production Code forced the filmmakers to handle matters in an expressionistic way. Also on the DVD is a "Warner Night at the Movies" feature hosted by Leonard Maltin, which includes a 1930s newsreel, a saccharine sweet Spencer Tracy short, a couple of 1930s trailers, and a goofy Merry Melodies cartoon called "Lady Play Your Mandolin."
An overrated groundbreaker with a memorable lead performance, Little Caesar is only vital for the die-hard Warner Bros. gangster series completist.