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.
- Warner Bros.
- 79 min
- Mervyn LeRoy
- Francis Edward Faragoh, Robert N. Lee, Robert Lord
- Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Glenda Farrell, William Collier Jr., Sidney Blackmer, Ralph Ince, Thomas E. Jackson
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