Little Caesar (1931)

Little Caesar
Little Caesar

'Little Caesar' is a crime and gangster movie made by Warner Brothers in 1931, directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Glenda Farrell. It was one of the defining movies of the early period of talkies, the prototype for the gangster movies which followed and it made Edward G. Robinson a star. He continued playing similar roles for many years.

The film was made in the era before the restrictions of the Hays Production Code. When the Code came into force in 1934 the film had to be withdrawn, not to be re-released until 1953. It received one Academy Award nomination, for Best Writing Adaptation (by Francis Faragoh and Robert N. Lee) but won none. In 2000, 'Little Caesar' was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In June 2008, the American Film Institute named the movie in ninth position in its list of Best Gangster films.

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'Little Caesar' helped to define the gangster movie while serving as an allegory of production circumstances because it was produced during the Great Depression. Within the film is inscribed a wholesale paranoia about individual achievement in the face of economic devastation. Leavening this theme alongside the demands of social conformity during the early 1930's means that LeRoy's screen classic is far more than the simple sum of its parts.

Caesar 'Rico' Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) is a small-stakes thief with a partner named Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). Recognizing a dead-end future, Rico moves to the heart of Chicago and joins Sam Vettori's gang. Joe becomes an entertainer and falls in love with a dancer named Olga (Glenda Farrell). In contrast, Rico gets a taste of the 'life', enjoys it, and begins to make his way up the ladder. Possessing a psychotic ruthlessness, he gradually looms as the new power on-scene before finally succumbing to an ill-tempered ego and the syndicate-breaking police. Gut shot and dying, ironically, beneath an ad for Joe and Olga's dinner act, Rico sputters some final words of self-determination, underlining how he won't ever be caught because he lived according to the terms of his own ambition. He finishes with the immortal last words:"Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?"

For audiences, Rico's killing was undoubtedly a clear call of recent tensions about the state of the world at the time. Limited by the feature film's structure, but not dulled by censorial practice in the days before the Production Code Administration, 'Little Caesar' offers a scornful look at free enterprise taken to an extreme. Seen through the long view of history and the focus on ill-gotten gains, it's a perfect corollary for Wall Street's collapse, itself the result poor regulation, mass speculation, and hysteria manipulated to benefit the few at the expense of the many.

Acting out to get a bigger piece of the pie, Rico expresses the wish for acceptance and the drive toward success in an otherwise indifferent world. Simultaneously terrorizing innocents and devastating the society he desires to control, he ends up illuminating the demands of power with homicidal shadows in this, a seminal film of the early sound era.

Main Cast

Edward G. Robinson ... Rico
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. ... Joe Massara
Glenda Farrell ... Olga Stassoff
William Collier Jr. ... Tony Passa
Sidney Blackmer ... Big Boy
Ralph Ince ... Pete Montana
Thomas E. Jackson ... Sergeant Flaherty
Stanley Fields ... Sam Vettori
Maurice Black ... Little Arnie Lorch
George E. Stone ... Otero
Armand Kaliz ... De Voss
Nicholas Bela ... Ritz Colonna


Director ... Mervyn LeRoy
Producer ... Hal B. Wallis, Darryl F. Zanuck
Writer ... Robert N. Lee, Francis Edward Faragoh, Robert Lord, Darryl F. Zanuck
Writer ... based on the novel by W.R. Burnett
Cinematography ... Tony Gaudio
Runtime ... 79 mins

Academy Awards

No Wins:
1 Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Writing (Adaptation) ... Francis Faragoh, Robert N. Lee