Movie Review – Little Caesar (1931)

Today we’re taking a look at Little Caesar, a 1931 gangster film that introduced the world to Edward G. Robinson.

Credited as one of the films that launched the gangster genre in the 1930s in Hollywood, Little Caesar is a classic tale that follows Caesar Enrico Bandello and his rise from a petty criminal into a powerful gangster.  The film Little Caesar is based on William R. Burnett‘s novel of the same name.

Little Caesar (1931) - movie poster

Little Caesar (1931) – movie poster

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, Little Caesar stars Edward G. Robinson as Caesar Enrico Bandello, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as Joe Massara, Rico’s close friend.  Supporting them are Glenda Farrell as Olga Stassoff, Sidney Blackmer as “Big Boy,” and Thomas Jackson as Sergeant Flaherty.

Little Caesar (1931) - (c) Warner Bros.

Little Caesar (1931) – (c) Warner Bros.

Little Caesar begins with criminals Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) and Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) robbing a gas station.  The two of them then casually eat dinner in a diner while Rico reads a newspaper.  When Rico sees a story about the underworld paying its respect to a gang leader, Rico realizes that that is the lifestyle that he wants.  He desires to be powerful and respected, and not some two-bit criminal that nobody knows.

However, Joe doesn’t have that same passion for being a criminal.  He tells Rico that he would rather be dancing on stage with a woman, and living life in the spotlight.  Rico seems disgusted that Joe would rather be a dancer and around women.

The two of them head to Chicago to pursue their dreams.

Little Caesar (1931) - (c) Warner Bros.

Little Caesar (1931) – (c) Warner Bros.

At the Palermo Club, Rico convinces Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields) to let him join his gang.  Vettori is reluctant to admit Rico, but he finally gives in and allows for Rico to be a member.  Rico is then taken to a back room where he meets the rest of Vettori’s gang.  Each of the gang member has a speciality that helps the gang commit its crimes.

Little Caesar (1931) - (c) Warner Bros.

Little Caesar (1931) – (c) Warner Bros.

Over at The Bronze Peacock, Joe Massara auditions for the role of a dancer by dancing with Olga Stassoff (Glenda Farrell).  The audience loves their performance, and Joe is allowed to remain as a dancer with Olga.  In addition to being dance partners, Joe and Olga quickly bond and form a relationship.  Their relationship has a rocky start when Olga discovers a gun stored in Joe’s pocket.

Little Caesar (1931) - (c) Warner Bros.

Little Caesar (1931) – (c) Warner Bros.

Shortly later, there’s a gang leader meeting at Little Arnie’s Gambling House.  The meeting includes Sam Vettori and Rico along with rival gang boss Arnold “Little Arnie” Lorch (Maurice Black).  Also in attendance is Pete Montana (Ralph Ince).  Delivering a message on behalf of “Big Boy,” Montana warns both Little Arnie and Vettori about crime commissioner Alvin McClure.  Apparently McClure has just been placed in charge of the crime unit, and he’s going after the gangsters at full speed.  “Big Boy” wants them to hold back their soldiers and to lay low for a while, not giving McClure any evidence or motivation.

Little Caesar (1931) - (c) Warner Bros.

Little Caesar (1931) – (c) Warner Bros.

A little while later, Joe becomes more detached from Rico and tries to get himself out of the gang.  He wants to live a clean lifestyle as a dancer, and not a criminal.  His excuses don’t float too well, and Rico pulls him back into Vettori’s gang, in time to participate in an upcoming heist.  Sam Vettori wants his gang to rob The Bronze Peacock club on New Year’s Eve.  Since Joe works there and is well known, his presence will make the robbery seem even less suspicious.  When Rico is caught trying to plan the robbery his way, he’s reprimanded by Vettori.

Little Caesar (1931) - (c) Warner Bros.

Little Caesar (1931) – (c) Warner Bros.

New Year’s Eve arrives and Vettori’s gang strikes at The Bronze Peacock.  The robbery goes off without a hitch until Alvin McClure (Landers Stevens) is leaving the club and he accidentally walks into Rico’s path.  Rico quickly shoots and kills the new crime commissioner, and then he flees back to Palermo Club.  Joe witnesses the shooting, and he’s in disbelief concerning his friend’s murderous actions.

Back at Palerno Club, Vettori is furious that Rico caused bloodshed despite Big Boy’s warning not to do so.

While that gang is concerned about Rico’s actions, Tony Passa (William Collier, Jr.) is trying to get rid of the getaway car.  The only problem is that Tony tends to get too emotional during some of the gang’s actions, and his emotional state causes him to crash the car while the police in pursuit.  Tony gets away on foot, but the police quickly discover the car and trace it back to Sam Vettori’s gang.

Little Caesar (1931) - (c) Warner Bros.

Little Caesar (1931) – (c) Warner Bros.

Sergeant Flaherty (Thomas Jackson) enters the Palerno Club and pays Vettori’s gang a visit.  Rico decides to hide in a hidden room and listen as the police detective questions the men about the car and the shooting at the nightclub.  He doesn’t have any hard evidence, but the gang knows that it’s just a matter of time before somebody cracks.  Rico gets tough and threatens to shoot anybody who “turns yellow” and squeals to the police.

Little Caesar (1931) - (c) Warner Bros.

Little Caesar (1931) – (c) Warner Bros.

The following day, Otero (George E. Stone) runs into Tony on the streets and sees that he’s still shaken from last night’s robbery.  Otero warns him about what Rico said about anybody ratting on them, but Tony doesn’t seem to care.  He refuses to meet with the gang, and he walks away to find a priest.  Otero rushes back and tells Rico that Tony has gone crazy.  Rico and Otero go driving and find Tony walking up the steps into a church.  Rico shoots him dead, and he and Otero speed away.

Little Caesar (1931) - (c) Warner Bros.

Little Caesar (1931) – (c) Warner Bros.

The gangsters then through an elaborate funeral service for Tony Passa.  Even though one of their own killed him, Sam Vettori still thought that Tony deserved such respect for their fallen comrade.  That evening at the banquet, Rico’s recent actions are celebrated and his status level in the organization is elevated.  Sergeant Flaherty crashes the party and sends Rico a stern message that he’s now watching him closely.

Little Caesar (1931) - (c) Warner Bros.

Little Caesar (1931) – (c) Warner Bros.

Meanwhile, Little Arnie doesn’t think too highly of Rico’s (a.k.a. “Little Caesar”) rise in power.  One night at The Bronze Peacock, Joe Massara happens to overhear Little Arnie talk about killing Rico.  Joe rushes to a phone to call his friend, but the message doesn’t reach Rico.  Rico is out purchasing newspapers (his rise in power was a recent news story, complete with his photograph) when Little Arnie’s gang does a drive-by shooting and tries to kill him.  Fortunately for Rico, he survives and a bullet only grazes his arm, only mildly damaging it.

Little Caesar (1931) - (c) Warner Bros.

Little Caesar (1931) – (c) Warner Bros.

Rico then takes his gang and they force their way into Little Arnie’s club.  They don’t kill Arnold, but Rico does convince him to leave town and to never return.  The following day there’s a newspaper story reporting that Arnold left for Detroit, Michigan.

Little Caesar (1931) - (c) Warner Bros.

Little Caesar (1931) – (c) Warner Bros.

After Little Arnie has left the city, Rico is invited to meet “Big Boy” (Sidney Blackmer), the rarely seen head of the organization.  It’s a big honor for Rico.  “Big Boy” informs Rico that Pete Montana is through, and that he, Rico, is to take over Montana’s old gang territory on the north side of Chicago.  Rico gladly accepts promotion to being the new boss of the north side.  He has finally reached his dreams of power, respect and control.  One day it’ll be Rico in “Big Boy’s” position.

Little Caesar (1931) - (c) Warner Bros.

Little Caesar (1931) – (c) Warner Bros.

A few months later, Rico calls Joe Massara into a meeting.  Rico is concerned that somebody has been talking about the murder of Alvin McClure, and that somebody might be Joe.  Rico tries to convince Joe to leave his job as a dancer, and to leave behind Olga, but he refuses to do so.  When Joe hears Rico talking about him on the phone to “Big Boy,” he flees from Rico’s house.

Little Caesar (1931) - (c) Warner Bros.

Little Caesar (1931) – (c) Warner Bros.

Joe rushes back to Olga’s home and tells her about Rico.  Olga is convinced that they should talk to Sergeant Flaherty and use the police department to protect them.  Joe thinks that doing so is suicide, but Olga calls Flaherty anyway.  She tells the detective to rush over there as quickly as possible, as Joe Massara has evidence that will convict Rico in McClure’s murder.

Little Caesar (1931) - (c) Warner Bros.

Little Caesar (1931) – (c) Warner Bros.

When somebody later knocks on the door, Joe and Olga see that it’s Rico and Otero, and not Sergeant Flaherty.  Rico pulls out his gun and threatens to shoot and kill Joe, but he cannot do it.  Rico cannot kill his old friend.  Otero then tries to shoot Joe, but Rico knocks away his gun and the bullet only hits Joe in the arm.  Just then the police officers are arriving, so Rico and Otero are forced to flee out a window and down the side of the apartment building.

One of the police officers spots the fleeing gangsters and gives chase.  There’s a short gun battle and Otero is badly injured.  Rico shoots and kills the police officer, and then he tries to help his friend.  It’s too late and Otero dies right there on the street.

Little Caesar (1931) - (c) Warner Bros.

Little Caesar (1931) – (c) Warner Bros.

While that’s taking place, Sergeant Flaherty leads the police department into raiding Palermo Club and arresting the rest of Sam Vettori’s gang.  It’s later learned that Sam Vettori is sentenced to death and hanged by the neck for his crimes.

Little Caesar (1931) - (c) Warner Bros.

Little Caesar (1931) – (c) Warner Bros.

Rico runs and hides in Ma Magdalena‘s (Lucille La Verne) hidden back room.  It turns out that Rico has a lot of money stashed in the apartment above Magdalena’s store, but it’s being watched by the police and he cannot access it.  Magdalena refuses to help him retrieve it as she’ll be thrown in jail if she’s caught helping Rico.  She’s also the only person who knows that the money is hidden there.  As a result, Rico is now broke and Magdalena gives him $150 and sends him on his way.  Rico reluctantly accepts the money and leaves.

Little Caesar (1931) - (c) Warner Bros.

Little Caesar (1931) – (c) Warner Bros.

Rico stays clear of the police and eventually finds his way to a flophouse.  He overhears two guys reading a newspaper article written about him, but he becomes enraged when he realizes that the newspaper’s article, none other than Sergeant Flaherty, is actually taunting him.  Rico calls the police department and gives Flaherty a piece of his mind.  While he’s speaking on the telephone, the police department traces the call and learns Rico’s location.

Flaherty and his fellow officers set out and quickly find Rico walking by a billboard.  Rico spots the cops and fires a shot at them before hiding behind the billboard.  The police return fire with a machine gun, and the bullets strike Rico.

Little Caesar (1931) - (c) Warner Bros.

Little Caesar (1931) – (c) Warner Bros.

Little Caesar ends with Caesar Enrico Bandello dying by a billboard that’s advertising the dancers Joe Massara and Olga Stassoff.

FINAL THOUGHTS

So is 1931’s classic gangster film Little Caesar a good movie?

Yes, very much so.

Little Caesar has a great story, it has a good cast of actors, and it launched the career of Edward G. Robinson, a popular movie star during Hollywood’s Golden Age.  He really does an outstanding performance in this movie.  Combined with The Public Enemy and Scarface, these three films helped develop the gangster film genre in Hollywood.

It’s been argued that Robinson’s character Rico was actually a homosexual, perhaps one that was repressed or closeted.  Basically, Rico has a complete lack of interest in women and wants nothing to do with them, he has a close friendship with Joe, and Otero is completely fascinated and practically obsessed with Rico.

Was Rico really a gay man?

I honestly don’t believe so, but you can draw conclusions based on some of the evidence as well as several camera angles.  In several key scenes, two male characters tend to stand extremely close to one another.  I don’t know if that was merely a style of camera work back in those days, or if the creators of the film were trying to send the audience a message.

Something that fascinated me in Little Caesar was that two of the cast members sounded extremely similar to later movie stars.  Actress Glenda Farrell had a very similar voice to that of Madeline Khan, an actress that co-starred in several of Mel Brooks’ comedy films in the 1970s.  Thomas Jackson, the actor who played Sergeant Flaherty, had a voice that sounded very similar to that of Willem Dafoe, an actor who reached fame starting back in the 1980s.

Little Caesar (1931) – movie trailer

Anyway, fans of both classic cinema as well as gangster films will find themselves right at home with Little Caesar.  This film is definitely worth your time, even if you just enjoy looking back at that time period.

four stars

Caesar Enrico Bandello – “If you ain’t out of town by tomorrow morning… you won’t ever leave it except in a pine box.”

——————-

Caesar Enrico Bandello – “This is Rico speaking. Rico! R-I-C-O! Rico! Little Caesar, that’s who! Listen, you crummy, flat-footed copper, I’ll show you whether I’ve lost my nerve and my brains!”

——————

Caesar Enrico Bandello – “Mother of Mercy! Is this the end of Rico?”

Namecheap