Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Little Caesar (Warners/First National, 1930/31)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The more “serious” movie we ran was Little Caesar, which I hadn’t seen in years and which turned out to be pretty good in retrospect, even though some of it seems more like a beta version of the faster, flashier Warners gangster vehicles to come. The absence of a music score, though typical of a 1930 talkie, seems especially jarring given that later Warners would become famous for deploying its music more loudly and relentlessly than any other studio. Little Caesar is best known as the film that made Edward G. Robinson a star, though it was neither his first film for Warners (in “First National” drag) nor his first gangster role — both took place in his immediately preceding film, The Widow from Chicago, an Alice White vehicle in which he played a Prohibition-era beer baron.

Robinson would play variations on this part — the snarling, almost bestial psycho killer whose very blood-lust threatened his subtler, more restrained comrades in organized crime — for at least 18 years, until Key Largo, and after originally being offered a small supporting role, Otero (eventually played by George E. Stone), Robinson insisted on being cast as Rico. He saw the film as a rags-to-riches tale — and given that the Depression was in full swing when this movie was made, it’s interesting that the plot directly reflects the only two avenues of upward mobility Hollywood was willing to acknowledge: entertainment and crime. Rico rises from a small-time hood eating in cheap roadside diners to head of organized crime in a major city — only to fall again and end up in a flophouse, from which he emerges only to get shot to death — while his partner, Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), leaves the rackets to become a professional dancer, teaming with Olga Stassoff (Glenda Farrell in her film debut — and, curiously, her Russian accent comes and goes; I kept waiting for an explanation that she was really an American pretending to be Russian for publicity purposes, but none came) and ultimately rising from the nightclub circuit to co-star in a Broadway revue (Rico dies under a billboard advertising their show). Robinson saw a commonality between Rico’s struggle and his own, even though he worked his way up through entertainment instead of crime.

There is a weirdly monstrous quality about Rico that may reflect the screenwriter, Francis Edward Faragoh, who worked on Frankenstein the next year; though Rico isn’t a “man-made monster” in the literal spliced-together-from-corpses sense, he’s depicted much the way the Frankenstein monster is in the later film, as a menace of almost other-worldly malevolence, approaching the camera in series of ever-closer close-ups as he registers menace and virtually uncontainable rage. The other quirk about this film that struck me last night that I hadn’t noticed before about it is the homoerotic subtext between Rico and Joe; not only does Rico’s downfall come when he refuses to kill Joe and thereby proves himself “yellow” in the eyes of his fellow mobsters, but the confrontation scene between them before then is played as a battle between two lovers breaking up, with Rico coming off as intensely jealous and hurt that Joe is not only abandoning the rackets for such a “sissy” career as dancing, but he’s abandoning him for a female partner. It’s one of those weird little byways that in a modern movie either wouldn’t exist at all or would be hammered home with intense obviousness, but in a film this old is thrown in casually, readily ignorable by less sophisticated filmgoers but there to be picked up by a viewer with the subtlety and human understanding to appreciate it.