Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ethnic G. Robinson

This morning over breakfast I watched Edward G. Robinson in Smart Money (1931) on TCM. Robinson plays the Greek-American barber Nick Venizelos, who's also a top-notch gambler. He goes to the big city and is swindled out of his money, but later gets another chance to get back at the people who swindled him, and becomes the biggest gambler of them all, evetually owning an illegal casino that leads to his downfall. James Cagney gets second billing as Robinson's sidekick, and the cast also includes a brief appearance by Boris Karloff, playing a man with a British accent.

What I found most interesting is that Smart Money casts Robinson as being of Greek descent. Robinson was born in Bucharest, Romania, in 1893, and Smart Money would be one of many times Robinson would be cast in ethnic roles that are, to say the least interesting:

  • Probably the best known is Robinson's portrayal of the Italian-American Rico in Little Caesar, the film which practically type-cast Robinson as a gangster;

  • Tiger Shark has Robinson incongruously playing a Portuguese-American fisherman. Yikes on both the Portuguese part and the fisherman part. Although playing such a role would later win Spencer Tracy a Best Actor Oscar, you have to wonder what the studios were thinking.

  • Robinson continued the Latin thing by being a Mexican-American in gold-rush San Francisco in Barbary Coast.

  • Perhaps most interesting, however, is Robinson's role in the delightful family movie Our Vines Have Tender Grapes: Robinson plays a Norwegian immigrant farmer in 1940s Wisconsin, brining up Margaret O'Brien. That's quite a change from those gangsters and southern Europeans! (It should probably be pointed out, however, that Robinson had already played a German historical figure in Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet and A Dispatch from Reuter's.)

I'm not certain what all these casting decisions say. Is it that the studios were dictatorial in controlling how their stars were used, either typecasting them or giving them strangely-cast roles? Certainly, the studios had a tendency to do such things. But perhaps it also says something about the acting ability of Robinson: he puts in capable performances in all of these movies, even when the script doesn't all the movie to be anything great.

Of the movies mentioned. Little Casear, Barbary Coast and Our Vines Have Tender Grapes are available on DVD. Smart Money is listed by Amazon as being part of Volume 3 of Warner's Gangster Collection, which is scheduled for release at the end of March.

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