Reviews and notes
Hollywood was quick to sense the entertainment potential in gangster violence, and Mervyn LeRoy's LITTLE CAESAR
, presented to the public by Warner Bros. as a flimsily disguised characterization of AI Capone, was the landmark sound film that became the model. Such fare was not new; Josef von Sternberg's silent Underworld
(1927} and Lewis Milestone's The Racket
(1928} were among the many films of the genre in the 1920S. But the advent of sound provided new trappings. Now bullets could talk. The incessant noise of the machine guns, the chilling screech of brakes, the sound of chases through city streets, dramatically impressed upon the public the blessings of sound. The gangster film was a made-to-order answer to the need for new ways to attract the public to the theaters despite the desperate Depression conditions following the stock market crash of 1929. The industry was increasingly apprehensive about a situation in which there were five million unemployed in 1930 (the year in which LITTLE CAESAR
was made}, nine million in 1931, and thirteen million in 1932, by which time there had been nearly six thousand bank failures.
The distinctive, wide-mouthed, squat face of Edward G. Robinson became a household image, and the sound of his voice turning "yeah" into "nyeahhh" was imitated throughout the land by comedians and children. It was similar when James Cagney came snarling along as the hood Tom Powers in William Wellman's The Public Enemy
(1931), another Warner Bros. triumph that solidified the genre. Robinson, playing Caesar Enrico Bandello, was an immediate star and so was Cagney.
The contemporary impact of Little Caesar was articulated by Richard Watts, Jr., then the young critic of the New York Herald Tribune :
"From LITTLE CAESAR, W.R. Burnett's much-admired novel about the rise and fall of a homicidal gang chieftain, comes the truest, most ambitious and most distinguished of all that endless series of gangster photoplays which have been inundating us in recent years. So many pictures celebrating the adventures of America's most picturesque banditti have been manufactured and their formula has become so stale that it is difficult to believe that a fresh and distinctive work on the subject is currently possible. But LITTLE CAESAR, by pushing into the background the usual romantic conventions of the theme and concentrating on characterization rather than on plot, emerges not only as an effective and rather chilling melodrama, but also as what is sometimes described as a Document. Chiefly, though, it is made important by the genuinely brilliant performance that Edward G. Robinson contributes to the title role....LITTLE CAESAR is the first of the gangster pictures to capture any of that realistic sense and that menacing, rather shocking credibility that Edward Dean Sullivan gets into his books about Chicago crime. The viewpoint of the photoplay is strikingly effective. As closely as the censors will permit, it adopts something of the manner of Fielding's Jonathan Wild and permits us to see how its hero-villain sees his career as a triumph of integrity, character, and good old ambition, as proof that hard work, earnestness of purpose, and an avoidance of bad habits will carry the worthwhile fellow to the top. It has irony and grim humor and a real sense of excitement, and its significance does not get in the way of the melodrama."
The action in LITTLE CAESAR
is tough and uncompromisingly brutal, moving with the certainty of a Greek tragedy. The opening message, warning that those who live by the sword will perish by the sword, sets the required moral tone and forecasts the outcome. The film begins with the hold-up of a gas station by Rico and his crony Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr). Rico realizes that he is small-time stuff and longs for the notoriety the Chicago big boys like Diamond Pete Montana (Ralph Ince) are getting. He heads for Chicago, where he pushes his way into the gang of Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields), who bestows upon him the name "Little Caesar."
The film chronicles Rico's ruthless rise to the top. He supersedes Vettori and so impresses "The Big Boy" (Sidney Blackmer), the top man in the Chicago underworld, that he is designated to take over from Diamond Pete. We know from the code of the period that Rico cannot possibly enjoy the rewards of crime without retribution. His arrogance leads to his downfall, and he ends as a fugitive. When he is finally gunned down, the story has come to its inevitable conclusion. More fascinating than the plot is the characterization. Rico, although able to kill without compunction, is something of a moralist. In the era of speak-easies, he shuns liquor. He believes in clean living to keep fit and to enable him to concentrate on getting ahead. Only when he is on the way toward destruction does he begin to drink. He has no interest in women; they are a distraction from the important pursuits.
, even when measured against today's more demanding standards, is extremely well made. It is taut, brittle, and involving. The violence crackles with realism and produces a sense of terror with its matter-of-fact killing. A vivid recreation of Chicago's underworld, it remains one of the best crime films ever made. It was top box office, and as Variety
put it, "caught the public appetite for underworld stories at its height." Its violence also prompted a torrent of complaints. It was as if LITTLE CAESAR
itself were the cause of gangsterism, and if such films were not made, the gangs would disappear. Censorship was a persistent threat, with various local boards determining what should or should not be shown and imposing cuts.
As Stephen Farber pointed out in his excellent book, The Movie Rating Game
, the legal ruling that prevailed until 1952 was a 1915 Supreme Court decision that denied movies the kind of freedom of expression recognized for the printed word on the ground that they were "a business pure and simple... a spectacle or show." As a result, the film industry, vulnerable to criticism and the actions of censorship boards, moved toward the self-regulation that has been its byword and in 1930 the Motion Picture Production Code was established. It was not stringently enforced at first, but the gangster films, along with films then considered sexually racy, increased demands by pressure groups for a crackdown. In 1934, the Legion of Decency of the Catholic Church was formed and became an all-powerful force that the film companies felt constrained to appease. Joseph Breen, a Catholic, became head of the industry's Production Code Administration, and internal censorship was a fact of life, with a Code seal necessary for the release of each film.
In these days of relative permissiveness, one forgets the extensive limitations prescribed by the Production Code of 1930. For example, films were not supposed to "lower the moral standards" or show sympathy "to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin." There were to be no details as to the methods of crime, and criminals were not to be seen killing lawmen, including bank guards and detectives. To placate the protesters against screen violence, filmmakers affixed various versions of crime-does-not-pay platitudes. But even with the "heroes" coming to a bad end, there was a sense of audience identification with them that could not be expunged.
-William Wolf, Landmark Films, 1979.
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