“When I get in a tight spot, I shoot my way out of it, why sure. Shoot first and argue afterwards. You know, this game ain’t for guys that’s soft.”
–Edward G. Robinson, “Little Caesar”

By the 1930s most of the major studios were coming to be known by moviegoers for the kinds of films they made. Disney made cartoons, Universal specialized in monsters, MGM had their musicals, and so on. Warner Bros. back then was best known for its gangster flicks. So it comes as no surprise that WB would give us a whole DVD package of their best gangster movies of the thirties, the “Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection,” containing six feature hits.

For those unable to afford or uninterested in the complete set, each of the six movies in the box is available separately, starting with the granddaddy of them all, “Little Caesar.” Made in 1930 by Warner Bros. First National Pictures and released nationally in 1931, this classic film pretty much started the whole trend in gangster movies in the thirties and forties. Indeed, we may not have had “The Godfather,” at least not as we know it today, without the ball having been started rolling with “Little Caesar.”

Which is not to say there is only historical interest in the film. Despite its somewhat antiquated appearance (it was 1930, after all), the movie holds up to present-day scrutiny quite well. It may not be quite as gritty as a couple of films that followed it, like WB’s “The Public Enemy” (1931) or the non-WB “Scarface” (1932); but “Little Caesar” is just as unyielding and hard-hitting, making a star of its lead actor, Edward G. Robinson.

Despite Robinson’s best intentions and his other fine award-winning dramatic work, “Little Caesar” forever typecast him as the little tough guy, the vicious gangster, an image perpetuated by countless stage comics, voice impersonators, and even by WB’s own animated cartoon caricatures. Perhaps it wasn’t fair to so talented an actor, art collector, and gentle and generous a man, but that’s life in Hollywood.

I first saw “Little Caesar” in a rerelease double bill with James Cagney’s “The Public Enemy” in 1954. To a youngster, they were already old-time movies, although they were only about twenty-odd years old at the time. Today, I hardly think of a seventies film as “old time,” but I suppose it’s the perspective of youth. To a kid of ten, the two films were different from anything I had ever seen before, and they made a vivid impression on me. The main characters were all evil, bad guys, criminals, something I hadn’t experienced in the movies or on TV as yet. They were what we might call these days “antiheroes,” protagonists who lack the qualities we usually associate with typical movie heroes, qualities like obeying the law, for a start.

In the movie Robinson plays the central character, a two-bit hood named Cesare Enrico “Rico” Bandello, a not-so-masked imitation of Al Capone, who skyrockets to power in the underworld and then falls just as fast. Yes, there had to be a “fall” in those days. The newly established “Code” demanded it.

You see, the “General Principles” of the Motion Picture Production Code, which went into effect shortly before “Little Caesar” was released, stated the following:

“No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.

Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.

Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.”

Furthermore, “Crimes against the law…shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation.”

These were the limiting factors in the movie’s depiction of a lowlife’s rise and fall in the world of crime. There had to be a “fall” in those days to compensate for the rise. We read in the movie, “…for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” –Matthew 26:52. Crime in early gangster films could not go unpunished. The audience had to learn the hazards of wrongdoing, and Hollywood’s Hayes Office would see to it that they did.

Anyway, as the movie begins, Rico and his pal Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) are a pair of cheap crooks robbing gas stations. But Rico, especially, is yearning to rise in the world of crime. Joe, on the other hand, just wants to be a dancer, of all things. So he and Joe pack up and “head East,” presumably to Chicago, where they summarily get jobs working as gunmen for the mob, a group identified as a hierarchy that includes Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields) as Rico’s immediate boss, Diamond Pete Montana (Ralph Ince) as Sam’s boss, and the “Big Boy” (Sidney Blackmer) as the top dog of the organization. It isn’t long before Rico works his way rather violently through the first two tiers of the outfit and takes over half the city. Meanwhile, his friend Joe also goes to work for the mob but takes a side job as a dancer in a fancy nightclub, too, his dance partner, Olga, played by Glenda Farrell.

The acting technique in this early talkie is typically over the top, with big, broad gestures, long pauses, and pregnant stares. You get used to it; it’s neither more nor less realistic than today’s more nuanced acting style, just different. Besides, I love Robinson’s preening, prancing swagger, with every utterance from his mouth a snarl. “Yeah, sure. See.”

Rico is ruthless, cold-blooded, killing and intimidating anyone who gets in his way to the top. “The bigger they come, the harder they fall” is his motto. On an interscene card (we were only a few years out of the silent era, you’ll recall) we read, “Rico continued to take care of himself, his hair, and this gun–with excellent results.” From looking like a bum, Rico learns to dress right and look right. Was this art imitating life? After all, Capone always looked spiffy in public. Or did life begin imitating art as more and more gangsters started emulating their hoodlum idols in the movies?

“Little Caesar” was based on a novel by W.R. Burnett, and it was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, who enjoyed a celebrated career from the 1920s through the 1960s with such films as “I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” “Random Harvest,” “Quo Vadis,” “Mister Roberts,” “The Bad Seed,” “The FBI Story,” and “Gypsy.” Although LeRoy allows far too much plot action to occur in far too brief a time and although he encourages a conventional acting style of the period that may seem stilted by more-recent standards, his direction is well paced and creative, often displaying a quite-modern usage of tracking shots, subtle background music, and moody shadows

Is it a great film? I don’t think so, but it is a good, classic film that has withstood the test of time. And, of course, Robinson’s riveting performance earned him a permanent place in the history of cinema. “Little Caesar” remains a remarkable movie.

OK, understand this is a very early talking picture, and even an original print probably didn’t look so good once it was run through a projector. Warner Bros. have come up with what is undoubtedly the best print they could find, but without a frame-by-frame restoration it was bound to show a few flaws. Yet it doesn’t look all that much different from what I recall seeing from my youth in the 1954 revival.

The picture is a tad blurred, not much but enough to remind us of the film’s age and its small degree of deterioration. It is slightly soft and fuzzy around the edges, with black-and-white contrasts that make it look only so-so. Age marks, scratches, lines, and flecks are few and far between, however, making it reasonably easy on the eyes for an old movie. While a few scenes display more grain than others, there are scenes that are crystal clear. It’s a toss-up.

The mono sound has been cleaned up a bit via Dolby Digital 1.0 processing, but it’s still somewhat vague, with an understandable degree of background noise discernable. Voices have a touch of hollowness to them, but remember that sound was only just introduced to movies a couple of years earlier. In its favor, the sonics are never harsh, tinny, or strident. Regarded in those terms, the movie’s soundtrack acquits itself pretty well.

Each of discs in the “Gangsters” box contains a similar slate of extras, and a goodly slate it is. The first item is really a series of things. Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin hosts a “Warner Night at the Movies,” 1930. This series includes a vintage newsreel; a six-minute Spencer Tracy short, “The Hard Guy,” about the vicissitudes of the Great Depression and the lure of crime for the little guy; a seven-minute, black-and-white Merry Melodies cartoon, “Lady Play Your Mandolin,” with characters that look suspiciously like Disney’s Mickey and Minnie Mouse; and a trailer for the film “Five Star Final.”

Of greater importance to the classic film fan, however, is a newly made featurette, “Little Caesar: End of Rico, Beginning of the Antihero,” seventeen minutes long, with commentary by director Martin Scorsese, film critic Andrew Sarris, and many others on the place of “Little Caesar” in film history. Did you know that Clark Gable almost had a part in the film but Jack Warner said his ears were too big! This and an excellent and informative audio commentary with film historian Richard B. Jewell provide a wealth of information that is hard to resist. Concluding the extras are a 1954 rerelease Foreword that warns of the dangers of gangsterism; twenty-two scene selections; a theatrical trailer for “Little Caesar”; English as the only spoken language; and subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Parting Thoughts:
Like the other movies in the set, “Little Caesar” is available separately or in the six-disc box mentioned at the beginning, “Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection.” The other five discs, listed chronologically, are “The Public Enemy (1931) with James Cagney, Jean Harlow, and Joan Blondell; “The Petrified Forest” (1936) with Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Humphrey Bogart; “Angels With Dirty Faces” (1938) with Cagney, Bogart, Pat O’Brien, and the “Dead End” Kids; “The Roaring Twenties” (1939) with Cagney, Bogart, and Priscilla Lane; and “White Heat” (1949) with Cagney and Virginia Mayo.

They’re all terrific motion pictures, but it’s hard to talk about any of them without first mentioning “Little Caesar.” Today, “Little Caesar” looks a bit dated, but it’s just as gripping as ever, and Robinson was never better. It’s a cautionary tale, a history lesson, and a minor movie classic all rolled into one.

“Mother of Mercy! Is this the end of Rico?”
–Edward G. Robinson, “Little Caesar”