When I was a kid we had an old VHS of Bugs Bunny shorts and one of the caricatures in a gangster-themed storyline — although I didn’t know it at the time — was undoubtedly Edward G. Robinson. That voice. That mug. That smug self-assuredness. They’re inimitable. Even then I knew the image without knowing who this garbled-mouthed gangster actually was. Watch Little Caesar and it’s all right there. In fact, without Little Caesar, one could step out on a limb and say that Bugs Bunny cartoon would never have been made. Though, Robinson was an indomitable personality. One way or another he would have broken through.
As it was, Robinson made a lasting impression in his big break, the picture that would make him a star just as its contemporary The Public Enemy (1931) did the same for James Cagney also at Warner Bros. True, it served as both a blessing and a curse typecasting the stars with their audiences. Still, both men led impressive careers which, at least on occasion, allowed them to break out of the mold and really show who they were as actors. And the beauty of their successes had nothing to do with an imposing physical frame but rather a sturdiness and commanding tenacity that made them into electric performers full of captivating stage presence.
With an opening quotation from Matthew, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword,” we are immediately tipped off this will be a moral tale right from the outset, an act of condemnation not glorification. However, that cannot completely neutralize the unadulterated gangsterism of Litte Caesar. Far from it.
With all these early Warner Bros. crime films we can define the arc of the story by an ambitious lug who’s willing to do whatever it takes to rise to the top, showcasing both guts and gats when necessary. It takes both to get ahead. Rico (Robinson) is a little guy who’s not content with his lot in life so he resolves to change things. He heads to Chicago with his buddy Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) to see what they can make of themselves.
Already they are on diverging paths as Joe looks to return to his first love of dancing, even finding a capable ally and love interest at a local club. Olga (Glenda Farrel) makes a new lease on life possible for him. But such a life would never do for Rico. He’s already set his sights on big-time crime, moving up the ranks with local mobster Sam Vettori.
Joe is roped in for a job as the inside man and reluctantly he goes along with it. But on the same night, New Year’s Eve, Rico guns down the crime commissioner during an otherwise straightforward hold up of the Bronze Peacock. It has heady implications as the local authorities look to clamp down.
As best as I can describe it, there is a stripped-down unsentimental bent to the action line going through the movie. The talking pictures still feel like a new phenomenon recorded on Vitaphone — a bit rigid and visually unimaginative — but in some respects, it aids in the characterization of the gangster underworld. It’s hard-edged, lacking any sense of freedom of movement or ideals. They play by a “you’re either with us or against us” mentality and they are not about to let you forget who your friends are. Rico and Joe provide the diverging alternative lifestyles available as one tries to go straight and the other becomes more crooked by the hour.
The character of Tony is another convenient case study for the movie as the local mob’s getaway driver who begins to lose his nerve and have remorse for his part in it all. It is his saintly mother who not offers him spaghetti but tries to remind him of his former life when he was a good boy. Convicted to the very core of his being, he goes to the priest for confession. But Rico will have none of this blubbering. His retribution is sure and swift as it’s always been, culminating in an OG drive-by shooting.
A gang war erupts when a failed hit is instigated on Rico. Instead, he and The Big Boy are able to consolidate power and he continues to rise up the ranks. All throughout his ascension, Rico lives by streetwise slogans like, “I ain’t afraid of nobody.” “The resident bosses are getting so they can dish it out but can’t take it anymore.” And of course, “the bigger a man becomes, the harder he falls.” It’s all but inevitable.
His words are prophetic because at some time Rico’s got to face the music and he does. Like The Public Enemy and Scarface, what sets these pictures apart is not necessarily that they glorified crime because you can make the case each tries to hammer home the moral crime doesn’t pay. And yet with the exhibitions in violence and the uninhibited pursuit of power by antiheroes like Cagney, Muni, and Robinson, the public latched onto them and propelled them into being big stars. Without the pre-code era, we would lack some of the legendary mystique of Rico.
In the end, riddled with Tommy gun fire, he looks up into the heavens, exclaiming those now immortal lines, “Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?” With that, he breathes his last. But the miracle of celluloid means that now 85 years onward Edward G. Robinson’s performance lives on.