Little Caesar (1931) sparked the public fascination with gangsters on screen. As the first in the holy trinity of gangster films—with The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) rounding out the trio—Little Caesar inspired countless films in the genre.
The characters in Little Caesar were based on real life criminals, from the legendary Al Capone to some surprisingly more obscure names. The film also quite literally made a superstar of Edward G. Robinson overnight. Thanks to Robinson’s understated yet energetic portrayal of the title character, Little Caesar enjoyed record-breaking success.
Edward G. Robinson is Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello, a small time hood who dreams of the big time with his partner in crime, best bud Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.). While Rico aspires to be the most respected mob boss in Chicago, Joe wants to be…a dancer.
Joe’s life goal seems a little out of place right now, but it will make sense when we get to who the character was based on.
As Rico tells Joe,
“I don’t want no dancing. I’m figuring on making other people dance!”
It’s obvious that these two friends have very different ideas for the future.
And somebody’s probably going to get hurt.
A Murder in Chicago
The boys head to Chicago and join a gang. Rico’s clearly got ambitions to take over a leadership position, and his cocky attitude and diminutive size earn him the nickname “Little Caesar.”
Meanwhile, Joe’s desire to break with the mob becomes even stronger once he secures a job dancing in a classy nightclub, and falls in love with his beautiful partner, Olga (Glenda Farrell).
Things get complicated for these two friends when Joe witnesses Rico kill the city’s crime commissioner at the club during a robbery. Joe still doesn’t want to be part of the gang, but he also doesn’t want to turn Rico in to the cops.
Rico "Little Caesar" Moves Up the Mob Ladder
Rico’s killing of the crime commissioner gives him the support and respect he needs to move up in the mob, and he takes over his boss’ job.
Rico is soon idolized by the rest of the guys in the gang, particularly Otero (George E. Stone), who follows him around like a puppy.
But Rico’s weak spot is Joe.
Rico doesn’t want to appear “soft” in the minds of the other gang members, but he just can’t seem to discipline Joe for pursuing his dance career over mob activities.
Rico continues to climb the mob ladder, much to the worry of other mobsters.
Rival boss “Little Archie” (Maurice Black) tries to have Rico gunned down on the street, but Rico thinks fast and is barely grazed by the bullets. Rico’s brush with death just gives him more street credentials, and soon the Chicago mob overlord invites Rico to take over the city’s North Side.
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An Impossible Ultimatum
Now that he’s in control of Chicago’s North Side, Rico feels the pressure to deal with Joe’s insubordination. He also worries that Joe might squeal to the police that it was Rico who murdered the crime commissioner. And Rico is maybe a little jealous that Olga monopolizes all of Joe’s time.
So Rico gives Joe an ultimatum: break with Olga and join him in a lucrative life of crime, or Rico will kill both Joe and Olga.
Joe wants to get out of town with Olga to avoid this impossible situation, but Olga disagrees, and calls the cops, informing them that Joe will turn state’s evidence against Rico. Police Sergeant Flaherty (Thomas E. Jackson) and his men head over to Joe’s apartment to pick him up, but Rico and Otero get there first.
Bad news for Joe.
Despite his quiet rage that his best friend won’t join him, Rico can’t pull the trigger and make good on his threat to kill. Otero then tries to shoot Joe, but Rico messes with his aim, and Joe is merely hit in the arm. Rico and Otero escape from the apartment just before Sergeant Flaherty arrives, but Otero is shot soon after as Flaherty and his men chase down the two gangsters.
Little Caesar Escapes
Rico manages to escape, and finds a room at a flophouse. The cops are unsuccessful in their attempts to find him, so Sargent Flaherty tries to manipulate Rico into revealing his location, and calls Rico a coward in the newspapers. Rico’s ego is sufficiently bruised, and he calls Flaherty from the flophouse to insult him.
But while Rico defends his toughness to Sargent Flaherty over the phone, Flaherty has the phone call traced, and discovers where Rico is.
Flaherty and his men track Rico down, and a shootout in the streets ensues. Rico tries to take cover behind a billboard that ironically advertises Joe and Olga as the city’s classiest dance team. But the bullets easily pierce through the billboard and hit Rico.
The End of Rico
The film ends with one of the most iconic Classic Hollywood lines:
“Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?”
It is, and Rico dies in the streets from which he rose.
And that’s the end of the film.
The Inspiration Behind Little Caesar
Little Caesar (1931) was the film version of William R. Burnett’s 1929 novel. A prolific young writer, Burnett based his book on the interesting characters he came across while working as a night clerk in a seedy Chicago hotel. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Burnett would write the screenplays for both Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932).
The title character of Little Caesar was loosely inspired by notorious gangster, Al Capone. Capone even sent a spy to the film set to make sure that Little Caesar portrayed the gangster world on film to his satisfaction.
How incredibly nerve-racking for the cast and crew.
But two other gangsters were the direct inspiration behind the Rico Bandello and Joe Massara characters: Rico was based on Chicago mobster Salvatore “Sam” Cardinella, while Joe Massara was inspired by none other than gangster-turned-dancer-turned-actor, George Raft.
Definitely puts Joe Massara’s dream of becoming a dancer into perspective.
Rico or Bust
Edward G. Robinson was familiar with the Little Caesar novel long before he was under consideration to star in the film: literary agent Leah Salisbury knew Eddie from her former days as a dancer, and sent him a copy of the book early in his film career. Salisbury believed her pal Eddie’s small size and dynamic energy were a perfect match for the book’s title character.
And she shrewdly recognized that it wouldn’t be long before Hollywood took Little Caesar, and made it into a film.
So when Warner Bros. producer Hal Wallis approached Eddie to play the supporting role of Otero in Little Caesar, Eddie knew it wasn’t the right part for him.
If Edward G. Robinson was to be in the film, he would play the lead.
As Eddie wrote in his autobiography,
“What occurred to me with the utmost finality was that if I were going to get anywhere in this new medium [the movies], I was not about to play bits. I did not ask for star billing; I knew that was a danger to be avoided until the public (and I) considered me a star—but I also knew that third leads and bits were a graveyard.”
Robinson discussed with Hal Wallis at length why Rico was the right role for him. Eddie recounted in his autobiography that “rarely had there been so polite and well managed double fury” as these two men expressed their differing viewpoints on which character Robinson should play in the film.
According to Edward G. Robinson biographer Alan L Gansberg [aff. link], the discussion got quite heated, and it was the image of the impassioned Edward G. Robinson before him that finally convinced Wallis that Eddie was right.
And after a flawless screen test, the part of Rico Bandello was officially Eddie’s.
In his autobiography [aff. link], Robinson says he’s pretty certain that Warners intended to cast him as Rico all along, and that offering him the role of Otero was the studio’s method to get Eddie interested in the film, and invested in the Rico Bandello character:
“To this day I think it was a ruse. I think Hal always meant for me to play Rico, and his ploy was to soften my rigid backbone.”
Little Caesar: Just Another Gangster Role?
And Eddie’s backbone did need a little softening.
Even at this nascent stage of his film career, Robinson worried he was being typecast as a gangster. Indeed, in the handful of films Eddie made before Little Caesar, he almost exclusively played criminals. Eddie longed for his movie roles to be as varied and challenging as his stage roles. In Eddie’s eyes, Rico Bandello was just another gangster on his growing list.
Robinson Gets Into Character
But Eddie also knew that Rico was an important role in an important film. And the lucrative weekly paycheck from Warner Bros. after the uncertain pay of Broadway was another great incentive he couldn’t deny.
So Eddie gave Little Caesar his all, and got into character.
He even wore his own clothes in the film, giving Rico the stylish flare that Robinson himself was known for in real life.
After studying the Little Caesar script, Eddie found that it read like “a literal and undramatized rendering of the novel.”
Eddie realized that to make the film work, he needed to find a way to project his character on screen with more than just words.
As Robinson pinpointed in his book [aff. link],
“I catch on fast, and I could see that the movies were and, by definition had to be, visual and not dependent totally upon verbal communication. This was a strange conclusion for one who had always depended upon words and dialogue. But it was now amply clear to me that a closeup could convey inner thought, that the technique of cutting could provide the aside. And it also came to me…after careful study of the new sound movies, that movies had to move.”
An impressive articulation of some astute observations. Edward G. Robinson was a smart man.
Making Little Caesar "Move"
So Eddie created an energetic, kinetic character that quite literally almost jumps off the screen, no words required.
It’s undeniably apparent in the close-up of Rico towards the end of the film when the suspense of whether or not Rico will kill Joe culminates: We see the seething anger, compassion, and confusion in Robinson’s eyes that makes Rico’s struggle real. There’s rarely been more effective use of a close-up to convey inner thought.
Creating An Anti-Hero
Robinson worked further magic with his character by somehow making the murderous Rico Bandello likeable, and even relatable.
Though Little Caesar‘s fun-loving, prank-pulling director, Mervyn LeRoy, and the intellectual Edward G. Robinson were very different men, there was one thing they immediately agreed on: Rico Bandello could not be an out and out villain.
Eddie and LeRoy realized they were creating one of the screen’s first anti-heroes.
LeRoy said of his vision for the Rico character that:
“I gave them [the censors] trouble. I told Eddie that I was trying to make out that Rico was a great man, a powerful man, who knew what he was doing but was not always a villain. Eddie agreed with that.”
And Robinson projected this quality expertly in the film. His Rico is a ruthless villain, usurping positions of power from his mentors, and killing in cold blood to get to the top. But there’s also a boyish quality Robinson brings to the character that makes it difficult to dislike Rico: his childlike admiration for the mob bosses, and his desire to make the mob overlord proud when he puts Rico in charge of Chicago’s Northside, is somehow incredibly endearing.
This combination of cold heartedness and boyish charm made audiences kind of like Rico.
Little Caesar: A Relatable Anti-Hero
Furthermore, Depression-era audiences related to Rico’s struggle to get to the top.
With so many struggling just to get by, it was kind of nice to see a character on screen rise from the proverbial and literal gutter, even if that person was a gangster who reached his goals through amoral means. As Eddie himself underscored in a 1960s interview:
“I probably expressed a feeling that millions of people had about their own lives. I think the popularity of my role can be attributed to the public preoccupation with the American dream of success. Rico was a guy who came from poverty and made it big. Rico make it straight up the ladder and everyone could identify with his climb.”
The Gentle Gangster
Despite his growing reputation as one of the most menacing gangsters on screen, Edward G. Robinson couldn’t have been more different from these characters off screen.
As Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Robinson’s co-star in Little Caesar, said of his friend Eddie [aff. link]:
“Poor Eddie Robinson was type-cast for so long as ‘the tough guy.’ No gentler man ever walked. He hated being villainous, but it paid so well that he was able in time to acquire one of the finest private collections of modern art.”
Gena Rowlands, Eddie’s co-star on Broadway in 1956, echoed Fairbanks’ assessment:
“…[Eddie] was surprisingly gentle for a man who had played so many gangsters. He was one of the most gentle men I have ever know.”
Eddie’s gentle nature made filming the more violent scenes of Little Caesar difficult for both himself and George Daly, head of special effects on the film. Since special effects was still a very new field, Little Caesar would pioneer gangster gun violence on screen.
Daly had to get creative, and Robinson had to be his brave guinea pig.
Robinson's Run-In with a Machine Gun
Due to the limited special effects techniques in 1930, at the end of Little Caesar, when Rico is gunned down by Sergeant Flaherty, Robinson actually had to stand there and have machine gun blanks shot at him.
Doesn’t that sound safe.
To protect his stomach and dull the pain, Daly suited Eddie up with steel plates under his clothes.
Eddie wasn’t super excited to film this scene, and he found it difficult to stay on his mark as the machine gun blanks were shot at him.
Understandable since the normal human reaction when you’ve got a machine gun shooting at you is to avoid the fire.
But both Robinson and Daly were pros: Robinson bravely did the scene, and Daly found a way to work with his unplanned movements.
Robinson’s gun-shy nature also made the scenes in Little Caesar when he’s the shooter difficult. Try as he might, Eddie could not keep his eyes open while firing the prop gun at the crime commissioner in the film’s crucial scene. So to make Rico Bandello appear a ruthless murderer who didn’t blink when firing, Edward G. Robinson’s eyelids were taped open.
Little Caesar is a Smash Hit
Little Caesar completed filming in just 31 days over the summer of 1930. Though the film was easily ready for release by December of that year, Jack Warner wisely decided this was most definitely not a Christmas movie, and held the film over until January 22, 1931, when it premièred at the Strand Theater in New York City.
Word got out quickly that Edward G. Robinson was spectacular in the film. Less than 24 hours after the premiere, lines began to form around the block to the Strand. Policemen were actually brought in to maintain order and break up fistfights of over-eager patrons waiting to see Robinson as Little Caesar.
After a mere eleven screenings, Little Caesar had already earned $50,000 at the box office, a new record for the time. With $0.35 being the average price of a movie ticket in 1931, the film’s earnings were indeed watershed.
Edward G. Robinson, the immigrant from Romania who came to the USA not speaking a word of English, the man with the unconventional looks who critics predicted would never be a leading man, was officially a movie star.
Eddie became one of the top six male box office attractions of 1931. His popularity was such that in 1931 alone, the Robinsons earned over $300,000, a far cry from the shaky financial standing Eddie was accustomed to from his years on the stage.
Little Caesar Makes Eddie a Star
Suddenly, Edward G. Robinson was shown the deference and respect afforded to movie stars when he and his wife Gladys went out. Sometimes this respect was co-mingled with fear by fans who couldn’t completely separate Robinson the man from Little Caesar on screen. And at other times, Robinson was even challenged to fist fights by fans who felt a need to prove they were tougher than Little Caesar.
After the mega success of 1931, Eddie and Gladys celebrated the New Year of 1932 in Paris, where Eddie bought a Renoir, finally able to afford the real deal and not a print, from one of his favorite artists.
The famous art collection of Edward G. Robinson had begun.
"Easing the Pain" of Prosperity
Despite all the financial rewards and approval from his peers and the public, Eddie couldn’t believe just how successful Little Caesar was. As Robinson said in his autobiography [aff. link],
“I had made a picture called Little Caesar, and, for reasons I leave to social scientists who deal with matter of public taste, it was a hit.”
Eddie felt more than a twinge of guilt at his great success, particularly during a time when so many people the world over were experiencing the effects of the Great Depression.
To, as Eddie put it, “ease the pain” and guilt of his prosperity, Eddie wisely focused on, and found greater fulfillment, in things unrelated to his celebrity, such as his marriage, the birth of his son Manny in 1933, and a growing awareness of what was happening outside of Hollywood, namely the rumblings of Word War II in Europe.
Edward G. Robinson may have found success in Hollywood, but he wasn’t about to remain stagnant in his personal life, or rest on the gangster film formula.
More Edward G. Robinson
That wraps up Little Caesar.
Read the rest of my Edward G. Robinson series in the articles below:
Bullets or Ballots (1936)
Kid Galahad (1937)
Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)
Double Indemnity (1944)