powered by AFI
Can you name the notorious mobster that the title character is modeled on in Little Caesar (1930)? If your answer is Al Capone, you are correct. However, there are other real-life counterparts to the fictional characters in this quintessential gangster drama, the first of its kind in the early sound era to explore the lifestyles of underworld characters outside the prison wall. In a performance that became a prototype for all future movie gangster portrayals, Edward G. Robinson captured the essence of a ruthless killer like Capone with his portrayal of Cesare Enrico Bandello. He was well supported by Ralph Ince as Diamond Pete Montana, a character modeled on Big Jim Colisimo, who was murdered by Capone; and Sidney Blackmer as "The Big Boy" (based on corrupt politician Big Bill Thompson, Mayor of Chicago). The underworld banquet sequence was also based on a real event - a notorious party in honor of two gangsters, Dion "Deanie" O'Bannion and Samuel J. "Nails" Morton, which received unfavorable coverage in the Chicago press.
The making of Little Caesar is just as fascinating as the film's real-life parallels. Producer Hal Wallis originally auditioned Edward G. Robinson for the supporting role of Otero (played in the film by George E. Stone) before deciding he was perfect as Ricco. Clark Gable had been the first choice of director Mervyn LeRoy for the role of Joe Massara, Ricco's sidekick, but was rejected when Warner Brothers production head Darryl F. Zanuck saw Gable's screen test. In his autobiography, Mervyn LeRoy: Take One, the director recalled that Zanuck said," You've just thrown away five hundred bucks on a test. Didn't you see the size of that guy's ears?" Needless to say, Gable was out and the role went to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
As for the actual filming of Little Caesar, Edward G. Robinson's aversion to the sound of gunfire was obvious from the beginning. According to LeRoy, "Every time he squeezed the trigger, he would screw up his eyes. Take after take, he would do the same thing. In the end, we had to tape up his eyelids to make sure it wouldn't show." Offscreen, Robinson was just the opposite of the vicious thugs he played onscreen. He was a kind and gracious gentleman and had a great appreciation for the fine arts - particularly painting, which he took up as a hobby. Although Little Caesar is considered one of Robinson's most memorable performances, it was overlooked by the Academy Awards committee that year (the film only received one Oscar® nomination for Best Writing Adaptation) and forever typecast Robinson in the type of role he learned to loathe.
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Screenplay: W. R. Burnett, Francis Edward Faragoh, Robert N. Lee, Robert Lord
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Editor: Ray Curtiss
Music: Erno Rapee
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Cesare Enrico Bandello), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Joe Massara), Glenda Farrell (OLga Strassoff), Stanley Fields (Sam Vettori), Sidney Blackmer (Big Boy), Ralph Ince (Pete Montana).
BW-80m. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.
by Jeff Stafford