Little Caesar (1931): Mervyn LeRoy’s Classic Gangster, Starring Edward G. Robinson (Repressed/Closeted Gay Man)

One of the earliest–and still best-known–gangster films is director Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931), made at Warner.

Little Caesar
Little Caesar (1931 film poster - Style A).jpg

Theatrical release poster

Though it was not the first gangster film of the talkies era (that was Lights of New York in 1928, Little Caesar is considered to be by historians the prototype of future gangster films, due to its quintessential portrayal of an underworld character that rebelliously challenged traditional values.

The strong critical reception and audience response made the film highly influential, both in the short and in the long run.

Taut, fast-moving, and well-acted by Edward G. Robinson in the title role, Little Caesar set the genre’s thematic and visual conventions, which were followed by other films of the era, specifically The Public Enemy, starring James Cagney, and Scarface with Paul Muni.

Clearly modeled on Al Capone, the rich part saw Robinson as Caesar Enrico Bandello.  The film depicts his rise to fame and then decline and demise—on the steps of a church.

Plot
Small-time criminals Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) and his friend Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) move to Chicago to seek their fortunes. Dissatisfied with his station in life, a bitter Rico says, “Look at us, a couple of nobodys.”

Rico joins the gang of Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields), while Joe wants to be a dancer, which results in Rico’s contemptuous response. Soon, Olga (Glenda Farrell) becomes his dance partner and girlfriend.

Joe tries to drift away from the gang and its activities, but Rico makes him participate in the robbery of the nightclub where he works. Despite orders from underworld overlord “Big Boy” (Sidney Blackmer) to his men to avoid bloodshed, Rico guns down crusading crime commissioner Alvin McClure during the robbery, with Joe as a witness.

Rico accuses Sam of becoming soft and seizes control of his organization. Rival boss “Little Arnie” Lorch (Maurice Black) tries to have Rico killed, but Rico is only grazed. He and his gunmen pay Little Arnie a visit, after which Arnie hastily departs for Detroit. The Big Boy eventually gives Rico control of Chicago’s Northside

Concerned that Joe knows too much about him, Rico warns Joe that he must forget about Olga and join him. Rico threatens to kill both Joe and Olga unless he accedes, but Joe refuses to give in.

Olga calls Police Sergeant Flaherty (Thomas Jackson) and tells him Joe is ready to talk, just before Rico and his henchman Otero (George E. Stone) arrive. Rico finds, to his surprise, that he is unable to take his friend’s life. When Otero tries to do the job himself, Rico wrestles the gun away, but Joe is wounded. Hearing the shot, Flaherty and another cop injure and capture Otero. With information provided by Olga, Flaherty proceeds to crush Rico’s organization.

Desperate and alone, Rico “retreats to the gutter from which he sprang.” While hiding, he becomes enraged when he learns that Flaherty has called him a coward in the newspapers. He calls the cop, announcing he is coming for him. The call is traced, and he is gunned down by Flaherty behind a billboard – an ad featuring dancers Joe and Olga,

Dying, he utters his final words, “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”

New Genre

Heralding the launch of the new crime-gangster genre, Little Caesar was both a critical and commercial success.  This film was soon followed by two other seminal gangster pictures: The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932),

Gay Text/Subtext

Some critics view the title character as a repressed or closeted homosexual. They cite Otero’s admiration of Rico, Rico’s  affinity for Joe, and Rico’s lack of interest in romantic relationships with women, as well as his utter contempt for Joe’s interest in women.

When the film was released, author Burnett drew the same conclusion about the character’s screen version, claiming he wrote Rico as explicitly heterosexual in his novel. Burnett even wrote a complaint to the producers about the conversion of the character to gay in the screen edition.

Cast

Edward G. Robinson as Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello/ “Little Caesar”
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Joe Massara
Glenda Farrell as Olga Stassoff
William Collier Jr. as Tony Passa
Sidney Blackmer as Big Boy
Ralph Ince as Pete Montana
Thomas E. Jackson as Sergeant Flaherty
Stanley Fields as Sam Vettori
Maurice Black as Little Arnie Lorch
George E. Stone as Otero

Oscar Nominations: 1

Adaptation: Francis Faragoh and Robert N. Lee

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Writing Oscar was Howard Estabrook for “Cimarron,” which also won the Best Picture.

Credits:

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Produced by Hal B. Wallis, Darryl F. Zanuck
Written by Francis Edward Faragoh, Robert Lord, Darryl F. Zanuck, based on Little Caesar by W. R. Burnett
Music by Ernö Rapée
Cinematography Tony Gaudio
Edited by Ray Curtiss

Production company: First National Pictures

Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures

Release date: January 9, 1931

Running time: 79 minutes
Budget $281,000
Box office $752,000