Starring: Edward G Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Glenda Farrell
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
The 30’s and the Great Depression… And a really interesting time in movies. Film censorship hadn’t been invented yet (what would first be the Production Code, rules about what you could show in movies, would later give way to certificates about what ages could attend a film, before that anyone could see anything, and anything went!). And films had sound, with a great focus on dialogue and plot. The film industry, with it’s dream creation and fantasy, was remarkably not hit hard by the Depression, because people needed the hope, humour and escapism of cinema.
Some films were fluffy escapism, and some dealt with financial struggle. This film, Little Caesar, deals with themes of greed and corruption, and how it eventually strangles the marketplace. It’s also one of the first gangster films.
Caesar (Robinson) and best friend Joe (Fairbanks) are partners in small crime, but when they move to Chicago to hit bigger game, Caesar decides to try to make it big, and become a gangster. In the meantime, Joe starts to work as a night club entertainer, and falls for his co-star Olga (Farrell). Their lives diverge, one starting to go clean, and the other becoming ever more ruthless on his way to the top.
I suppose the idea in this film really is that the people who run the town are ruthless gangsters, who eventually in their greed and short-sightedness destroy the markets they control, just like what had happened with the stock market crash. The little guy gets crushed under these conditions, but, just like in this film, crime doesn’t pay in the long term.
Though Fairbanks is the better known name, and he became synonymous with heroic characters, I really like Robinson in this film. He’s got so much character and menace as the title character, and I have heard that after this film, he was hissed at in the street by people who recognised him from this movie. It’s a fine film, with some action, some danger, a good guy and a bad one, a bit of romance all thrown in, and well worth a watch if you love gangster films, since this is where a lot of the later genre defining tropes began.
See It If: you love gangster films, this one is for you. A wonderful film with a fine central performance.