The ambitious criminal Rico (Edward G. Robinson) moves from the country to the big city in the east and joins Sam Vettori's (Stanley Fields) gang with his friend Joe Massara (Douglas Fainbanks Jr.). Sooner he becomes the leader of the gangsters and known as Little Caesar, and gets closer to the great mobster Pete Montana (Ralph Ince). In a robbery of a night-club, he kills the Crime Commissioner Alvin McClure (Landers Stevens) and his pal Joe witnesses the murder. When Rico orders Joe to leave his mistress Olga Strassoff (Glenda Farrell), she takes a serious decision.
Edward G. Robinson ... Little Caesar aka 'Rico'
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. ... Joe Massara
Glenda Farrell ... Olga Stassoff
William Collier Jr. ... Tony Passa
Sidney Blackmer ... Big Boy
Ralph Ince ... Diamond Pete Montana
Thomas E. Jackson ... Sergeant Tom Flaherty (as Thomas Jackson)
Stanley Fields ... Sam Vettori
Maurice Black ... Little Arnie Lorch
George E. Stone ... Otero
Armand Kaliz ... De Voss
Nicholas Bela ... Ritz Colonna (as Nick Bela)
Rico Bandello, a petty crook nicknamed LITTLE CAESAR, plots his rise to become crime boss of the Big City.
Edward G. Robinson made a tremendous impact in this star-making saga of a thoroughly detestable little man who bandies his way through society's underbelly for a short time until fate brings him his just reward. The evil spawn of a deplorable age, Rico cares for neither booze nor dames, only pure raw power. Even loyalty & friendship are weaknesses to be deplored since no one can be ultimately trusted. Robinson, with his frightening eyes and large ugly mouth, makes this human scum fascinating to watch - a cheap little monster in expensive suits, a moral nonentity with a big gun.
Douglas Fairbanks Jr does a fine job with what little the script gives him as Rico's longtime buddy; the bland nature of his performance contrasts nicely to Robinson's florid acting style. Even more compelling is Glenda Farrell in an important early role as Fairbanks' girlfriend - this talented actress would soon become one of Hollywood's premiere tough talking brassy blondes.
Stanley Fields, Sidney Blackmer & George E. Stone all deliver vivid portraits of crooks & criminals that Rico must intimidate or use. Special mention should be made of William Collier Jr who gives a touching portrayal as the mob's getaway driver who loses his nerve and attempts to go straight.
Movie mavens will recognize an unbilled Lucille La Verne as the old crone who intimidates Rico near the end of the picture.
With LITTLE CAESAR and PUBLIC ENEMY (1931) Warner Brothers established themselves as the Studio that could produce topnotch, gritty crime dramas. The reputation was well deserved and the films were appreciated by movie viewers already enthralled by the headline exploits of real life Depression desperadoes.
Boy, is this gangster movie dated but Edward G. Robinson makes it so entertaining! Robinson, like James Cagney, can dominate a film. He certainly does that in this movie, and is sure fun to watch as "Enrico Bandello."
Everything about the movie, including the DVD transfer (although a lot better than the VHS) is dated-looking and sounding, but that helps make it interesting. The dialog is so passe that it's almost weird. I put on the English subtitles so I could understand everything because the slang of those days is something foreign to us nowadays. The different expressions of the day are fun to hear (and read).
The acting by the man (Thomas Jackson?) who plays the main cop is also strange, very wooden-like. He just didn't sound natural. Some of the other actors were likewise, others were fine. It was one of the early "talkies" so maybe things were still needed to be smoothed out, film-wise and acting-wise. In other words, some of the actors sounded professional and others amateurish.
The following year, James Cagney's "Public Enemy" came out and was much better, production-wise. What a big difference in the camera-work, for one. This film may not be the caliber of "Public Enemy" but it's still good and one to have in your collection.
LITTLE CAESAR (First National Pictures, 1930, released early January 1931), directed by Mervyn LeRoy, from the novel by W.R. Burnett, is not a movie dealing with the history of the pizza franchise, but a pioneer gangster drama about the rise and fall of an underworld thug who rises from the gutter to the leadership of a powerful gang.
One of the few movies released during the early sound era to still hold interest today, the true success of LITTLE CAESAR is the casting of Edward G. Robinson in the title role, though referred to on many occasions in the story as Rico, or Cesar Enrico Bandello, rather than to the title character, though called Little Caesar only a few times, first by the crime boss, Sam Vetorri (by Stanley Fields); once by Rico's pal, Joe Masarra (as acted by the very young Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), and afterwards several times by a flop house resident while each is reading about Rico in a newspaper; and one final time by Little Caesar (Robinson) himself before the conclusion of the story. However, Robinson, a fine actor with the "bulldog" face, may seem to appear to be an unlikely leading man, but is an exceptional performer when it comes to playing gangsters. LITTLE CAESAR is not the first gangster movie ever made, nor the first of this type from Warner Brothers/First National Pictures. In fact, it's not actually Robinson's introduction to this genre. He had played gangsters on screen before. But it was LITTLE CAESAR that established the career of Robinson and the popularity of the gangster film that has, up to this time, surpassed all previous efforts, until THE PUBLIC ENEMY came around later in 1931, making an overnight sensation out of another resident actor waiting to get recognized, James Cagney. THE PUBLIC ENEMY relatively belongs to Cagney as LITTLE CAESAR belongs to Robinson, for that each film brought them the recognition they deserved. The popularity in both these films prompted the studio to reissued them on a double bill in later years, with an added forward listed in both of them which reads: "Perhaps the toughest of the gangster films, LITTLE CAESAR and THE PUBLIC ENEMY had a great effect on public opinion. They brought home violently the evils and associate with prohibition and suggested that necessity of the nationwide of house-cleaning. Tom Powers in THE PUBLIC ENEMY and Rico in LITTLE CAESAR are not two men or are they nearly characters. They are a problem that sooner or later, we, the public, must solve."
With a fine cast of supporting actors, ranging from gang members to crime bosses to police commissioners, include Stanley Fields as Sam Vetorri, gang boss who keeps his office at the Club Palermo; Armand Kaliz as DeVoss; George E. Stone as Otero; Sidney Blackmer as "Big Boy"; Ralph Ince as Diamond Pete Montana; Maurice Black as Little Arnie Lorch; and Noel Madison as Peppi. Look fast for character actress Lucille LaVerne, appearing without screen credit, acting in a small role as "Ma" Magdalena, an tough old hag of a woman (plus a minor touch of an Italian accent), who turns out to be the only character in the story to betray Rico, stand up to him, and get away with it. While virtually a cameo, LaVerne, who specialized in playing old hags in motion pictures from the silent days in ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1921) to literary classics in the sound era in A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1935), and concluding her career in voicing the character of the wicked witch in Disney's animated fairy tale, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937), makes a memorable impression. And speaking of memorable impression, top acting honors also goes to Thomas E. Jackson as Inspector Tom Flaherty. His distinctive snarling or nasal-tone voice supplying funny one liners ("Why didn't you come to Sam's neck stretching party, Rico? It was a BIG success!") add to the greatness of LITTLE CAESAR. In spite of some unintentional amusements, it's virtually a straight drama about crooked thugs.
Aside from Robinson's memorable performance and his occasional repeated catch phrase, "You can dish it out, but you can't take it," LITTLE CAESAR is full of classic scenes: Rico's introduction to "the boys" with interesting use of camera angles; the New Year's Eve robbery of a Bronze Peacock Night Club where Rico's best pal, Joe Massara (Fairbanks) works as a dancer, and selected as a lookout for the gang by standing by the cigarette counter at the stroke of midnight; Rico's termination of a cowardly Tony Passa (William Collier Jr.) in front of the church steps after wanting to break from the gang and to seek help from his parish priest, Father McNeil; Rico's near machine-gun assassination attempt by a rival gang ordered by leader Little Arnie Lorch (Maurice Black) after purchasing a bundle of newspapers headlining his honorary banquet event; Rico's confrontation with Joe for betraying him for the sake of a woman, Olga (Farrell), only to find he is unable to gun them both; Rico's reaching bottom by sleeping in a flop house in the appearance of looking dirty, teary eyed and in need of a shave; Rico eluding his capture by Flaherty; and the climatic moment concluding with one the most famous lines in movie history, "Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?"
LITTLE CAESAR has all the elements of successful gangster story. Unlike its rival, THE PUBLIC ENEMY, Rico is ambitious and power hungry from the start, not a cold-blooded killer as Cagney's Tom Powers. Rico, or Little Caesar, kills only those who betray him or stand in his way, not for the pleasure of it. While portions of the movie might appear handicapped to contemporary viewers, particularly with the use by early sound technology, such as the echos of spoken dialogue between the two main characters (Robinson and Fairbanks) in a diner, and other characters in an office or police station; as well as some vintage orchestral underscoring (as conducted by Erno Rapee) commonly heard in early talkies; and the lack of the sight of blood following the shooting of intended victims; but the real topper happens to be Glenda Farrell's little girl sounding voice as she shouts, "Happy New Year" to Joe. In spite the fact that present day film historians claim Glenda Farrell to be miscast as Olga, LITTLE CAESAR was her initial starting point in motion pictures, and while unfamiliar to many at the time of this film's release, it would be hard to determine what best suited her on screen. Granted, had Farrell performed this particular role of Olga years after establishing herself as wise-cracking reporters (such as in 1933's THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM); or money-hungry gold digger vamping her "sugar daddy"; sharp-tongue secretaries, or as a newsgal named Torchy Blane who solves murders and getting her name in the byline, then she would have been ranked as playing against type. But as it stands, LITTLE CAESAR marked the beginning of Glenda Farrell's long association in motion pictures. Never a top rank star, she would become a familar face in years to follow. Her brief dancing segment opposite Joe Masarra to the underscoring of "If I'm Dreaming, Don't Wake Me Too Soon" (from the 1929 motion picture musical, SALLY, starring Marilyn Miller) is performed in long shot camera range. It's possible that doubles were used in place of Fairbanks and Farrell, considering that these actors weren't ever associated with dancing, in fact, appear unlikely to play professional dancers.
Edward G. Robinson probably thought of LITTLE CAESAR as being another movie assignment for him at the time, but what he or those behind the camera didn't realize is what they were to accomplished. The continued success to LITTLE CAESAR and Edward G. Robinson, which began playing on commercial television during the late night or mid-afternoon hours for several decades before reaching cable, such as Turner Classic Movies where it can be seen quite regularly, relies on its frequent revivals (often double featured with THE PUBLIC ENEMY) to become part of cinema history. Also available for viewing on video cassette and later DVD, LITTLE CAESAR has even aired on TCM as part of it's weekly showcase, "The Essentials," establishing this vintage gangster drama as an immortal classic that appears to have stood the test of time.
* Speculation has it that a federal anti-organized crime law - The Racketeering Influence Corrupt Organization Act, or RICO - got its acronym from Edward G. Robinson's character.
* The character of Cesare Enrico Bandello is not, as widely believed, based on 'Al Capone (I)'. Instead, he is based on Salvatore "Sam" Cardinella, a violent Chicago gangster who operated in the early years of Prohibition.
* Clark Gable was originally considered for the part of Joe Massara, but Jack L. Warner decided that Gable's ears were too big, and the role went to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. instead. Gable ultimately signed with MGM, where he would become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history.
* There were two versions of Rico's final words filmed, "Mother of God, is this the end of Rico?" and "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?" Although "Mother of God" was taken directly from W.R. Burnett's novel, it was decided the line was potentially blasphemous coming from a murderous gangster and "mother of mercy" was used instead.
* It is unknown when this movie actually premiered. The AFI states 1930 while other sources say it was 1931.
* Despite the film's huge success, the book's author, W.R. Burnett, was furious that no actual Italians were cast in the film.
* The film was ready for release in December 1930, but Warner's brass felt it was not a Christmas picture. It officially debuted at the Strand Theater in New York on 31 January 1931.
* The "Forward" that now appears on the beginning of the film was added for the 1954 re-release of Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (1931) as a combination package.
* In one scene, Edward G. Robinson had to fire a pistol while facing the camera. Try as he might, he was unable to keep his eyes open each time he pulled the trigger. The problem was eventually solved by having Robinson's eyes held open with cellophane tape.
* The movie's line "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?" was voted as the #73 movie quote by the American Film Institute (out of 100).
* The opening weekend of this film's release broke the all-time attendance record for Warner Bros.' Strand Theater in New York, grossing $50,000 in eleven performances. Both Edward G. Robinson and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. made personal appearances at the New York premiere, for which the top ticket prices were two dollars.
* The character of Joe Massara was based on actor George Raft, who was associated with Owney Madden, the man who organized the taxi racket in New York City.
* Although The Doorway to Hell (1930), a gangster film released by Warner Bros. in 1930 was a big hit at the time, most sources consider Little Caesar to be the film which started a brief craze for the genre in the early 1930s.
* The character Diamond Pete Montana was modeled on Big Jim Colisimo, who was murdered by Al Capone; and "The Big Boy" was based on corrupt politician Big Bill Thompson, Mayor of Chicago. The underworld banquet sequence was also based on a real event - a notorious party in honor of two gangsters, Dion "Deanie" O'Bannion and Samuel J. "Nails" Morton, which received unfavorable coverage in the Chicago press.
* Producer Hal B. Wallis originally auditioned Edward G. Robinson for the supporting role of Otero (played in the film by George E. Stone) before deciding he was perfect as Rico.
* Ranked #9 on the American Film Institute's list of the 10 greatest films in the genre "Gangster" in June 2008.