Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Little Caesar - 1931

"Little Caesar" - 1931
Dir. by Mervyn LeRoy - 1 hr. 19 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Sometimes, "important" films don't really age well.  Heck, even lame films don't age well.  It took me two sittings to get through "Little Caesar," which isn't exactly a glowing recommendation for a film that's pretty shy of ninety minutes.  That's not to say that there aren't good things here, and it's not to say that I wouldn't watch it again, but it's pretty clear to me that "Little Caesar" is best understood in the context of it's time, and not as some timeless crime film that draws a viewer in so well that you barely notice the influence of when it was made.

At this point in time, films were pretty straight-forward.  Nuance existed, but barely.  So the plot of "Little Caesar" is pretty straight-forward, too.  Rico, aka Little Caesar (Edward G. Robinson) is an aspiring gangster, and pretty much forces his (and his friend, Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks)) into a gang.  Rico embraces the life of crime, and is regarded as somewhat reckless and aggressive, but succeeds quickly.  Joe doesn't feel the same way, and wants a life outside of crime as a nightclub dancer.  Rico drags Joe along kicking and screaming, until the whole thing comes to a head, and ends with Rico (and his entire criminal empire) hauled in by the feds.  Rico ends up back on Skid Row, only too be goaded into a confrontation where he is shot and killed (because crime doesn't pay, kids).
Good stuff first: Edward G. Robinson pretty much is single-handedly responsible for making this film watchable.  The plot doesn't have many wrinkles; this is straight up a film about the ascendancy of a criminal, with his complicated relationship with his childhood friend as the only real source of tension.  The other criminals are either in awe of Rico, or are too scared to much of anything but follow his lead.  Even rival criminals can't really do much about him, so they end up under his thumb when their machinations fail.  Robinson's performance launched his career (according to the WIKIGOD), and for good reason.  He's a live-wire; despite his stature, he makes it believable that the other men wouldn't to cross him, not even the first crime boss (Stanley Fields), who has an unfortunate habit of standing behind his desk with his fists on the tabletop, looking much like a gorilla.

The other real success in "Little Caesar" comes toward the end of the film, when Rico and Otero (George E. Stone) have come to Joe's apartment to kill him and his girlfriend, Olga (Glenda Farrell).  It might not seem like a big deal, and I don't have a strong grasp on the chronology of when cinematic "firsts" happened, but when the confrontation hits it's peak, director Mervyn LeRoy switches from a longer shot to a shot of Robinson directly facing the camera, gun in hand.  That shot hadn't occurred in this film previously, and one can only imagine what a 1931 audience might felt when having a character pointing a gun directly at them, instead of the other characters in the film.  In the context of it's own time, this was probably a really big deal, even if 2014 audiences would be numb to the shot's effect.  Certainly, contemporary audiences wouldn't have been as familiar with such cinematic techniques.

There are also parts of the film that are problematic.  First off, the weird way that Edward G. Robinson talks all the way through the film has spawned infinity imitations.  In fact, that very voice that's in your head right now that's a parody of how old gangster movie characters talk?  That's literally from this film, and literally from Robinson's performance in this film.  It's so weird (and been so thoroughly mocked) that it makes it hard to take the film seriously, even if it also kind of makes it a lot of fun.  I found myself spending the entire third act responding to the TV with a duck-sounding "myah, see?" every time Robinson spoke.  Secondly, I couldn't figure out the whole "dancer" angle that Douglas Fairbanks was working.  I couldn't figure out the logistics of it; was he getting paid to be like a pace runner or something, making sure everyone danced their asses off?  Was this a gigolo situation?  If so, how did his girlfriend, Olga, another dancer, play into this?  And why does Rico get so mad about his buddy coming off soft, since he had a girl and Rico never did?  I know a common reading of this film has a homosexual subtext (Rico's gay, in plain terms), but that still doesn't really explain what the hell Joe Massara was getting paid to do, precisely.  It explains Rico's jealously, and if Joe gets to hang out dancing with chicks every night, it's clear why he'd be game for a career change.  But I just could never wrap my head around what Joe was doing.  I'm just going to assume that he was a jazz-era go-go dancer, and leave it at that.

The fact that "Little Caesar," and it's star, Edward G. Robinson, remain really watchable and interesting eighty-plus years after it's release is enough of a reason to recommend it.  It's not a complex film, and it's not a technical masterpiece (you'd probably prepare yourself to deal with the hiss that accompanies a film that largely has no score whatsoever - I didn't keep track if whether or not music was used at all, I just noticed the background hiss more than a couple of times).  It's probably even odds that you're going to get pulled out of the straight-forward story by a number of things.  It could be the Robinson voice, it could be what passed for technical expertise in film-making in 1931, you might just think that the whole thing is funny and ridiculous and blow it off.  Delving deep into film history isn't for everyone.  But if you're curious about how crime films developed over the years, "Little Caesar" should probably be on that checklist of the bare-bones essentials you need to watch.

3 / 5 - TV

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