Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Little Caesar

Today marks the birthday of director Mervyn LeRoy, who was born on this day in 1900. One of his best movies was one of his earliest, the gangster movie Little Caesar.

Edward G. Robinson stars as Rico, a small-time thug who's got a friend in Joe Massara (played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.). Together they go to the big city, and while Joe eventually tries to go straight and work at a nightclub, Rico, nicknamed "Little Caesar", joins up with a bigger gang. Little Caesar has big ideas, though, and quickly tries to muscle his way to the high end of the hierarchy. Of course, crime does not pay, and we see that even though Little Caesar is rich for a while, it's bound to come crashing down on him eventually. It's a fairly straightforward, if violent, crime arc.

However, Edward G. Robinson showed right away that he was special. As Little Caesar, he's not just violent; he's sadistic and ruthless, too. At the same time, however, he's charismatic. His Caesar completely overshadows the rest of the characters, or at least the other gangsters, who look one-dimensional in comparison. Little Caesar has often been compared to The Public Enemy, and with good reason: both were gangster movies; both focused on the anti-heroes their gangster protagonists were, and, in so doing, served as a blistering indictment of the Prohibition-era laws; and both movies made stars out of their lead actors, Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, respectively. Even though both gangsters get theirs in the end, it's easy to see why such movies would make the men who wanted to enforce the Production Code livid. Even though the movies are tame compared to what we see on screen today, in 1931 they must have been almost shocking for the amount of violence they unapologetically portrayed.

Even though Little Caesar was a star-making vehicle for Robinson, there are some other good performances in it, most notably by Glenda Farrell. She plays girlfriend to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., but seems as though she'd be better suited playing Caesar's gun moll. She's tough as nails, and shows why she would go on to spend the entier 1930s playing a string of women who seemed to have more cojones than most of the men in her movies. It's too bad she never really got to be an A-list star.

Even if you consider Little Caesar to Mervyn LeRoy's finest movie, his career wasn't exactly downhill from there. He would go on to make another groundbreaking crime movie, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, as well as classic musicals like Gold Diggers of 1933 and, 30 years later, Gypsy. And yet, none of these got him his Oscar nomination, which came for the 1942 romance Random Harvest.

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