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The Little Giant (1933) was Edward G. Robinson's first comedy, and he proved to be adept at it. As a Chicago beer magnate about to lose his business with the repeal of Prohibition, Robinson moves to California and tries to join society's upper crust, but his gangster origins prove tough to shake. (The plot is remarkably similar to A Slight Case of Murder (1938), which also starred Robinson.)
Robinson and co-star Mary Astor had previously appeared in The Bright Shawl (1923), Robinson's only silent film, in which Astor played his daughter, and they would work together again in The Man With Two Faces (1934). Robinson was much impressed with Astor, later writing that "she had then all the attributes that make for greatness in an actress: beauty, poise, experience, talent, and above all, she did her homework." Astor was equally complimentary of Robinson but dismissive of this film: "There was something wrong about Edward G. Robinson taking pratfalls from a polo pony."
When The Little Giant was assigned, Robinson had just learned that his wife Gladys was pregnant. This was a surprise, for with her health problems it was thought that she could not bear children. Her pregnancy demanded special attention and delivery by cesarean. Robinson insisted that the baby be born in New York for sentimental reasons, and they took the Super Chief across the country. Warner Brothers had agreed to accommodate him by delaying The Little Giant for four months, but the studio took him off payroll in the meantime.
In New York, Robinson tried to walk incognito down Broadway, visiting his old haunts, but according to his memoir he was often recognized and taunted by tough New Yorkers, along the lines of "Tough guy, huh? Little Caesar, huh? Well, let's see how tough you are. I can knock you into Tuesday!" To deal with this, Robinson "sought refuge in hotel lobbies pleaded with walking patrolmen for assistance [and ultimately] gave up walking on Broadway." Taking taxis, "the usual tip of a dime on top of the fare would be thrown back at me, a quarter was reluctantly accepted, and a dollar seemed required." Life of a star, it seemed, was not as easy as it appeared, and Robinson finally agreed to return to Hollywood to shoot The Little Giant in a shortened time frame so that he could be back in New York for his child's birth.
The Little Giant was co-written by Wilson Mizner, a brilliant raconteur whom Jack Warner described as a "playwright, adventurer, and lovable con man. Six foot four, two hundred and twenty [pounds]. At the studio he usually sprawled half asleep in a big red plush chair which so closely resembled a churchly throne that his friends nicknamed him 'the Archbishop.' He could write the sharpest dialogue in the business." True enough, Mizner had to his credit The Dark Horse (1932), 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), and Lawyer Man (1933) as well as uncredited dialogue work on films like Little Caesar (1931) and Five Star Final (1931). Unfortunately, just before his 58th birthday, Mizner suffered a heart attack at the studio. He shook his head when asked if he wanted a priest. "I want a priest, a rabbi, and a Protestant minister," he said. "I want to hedge my bets." He died before The Little Giant was finished.
A major earthquake struck the L.A. area during production of The Little Giant, and some shots contain a slight rocking motion caused by aftershocks during filming.
Producer: Raymond Griffith
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Screenplay: Robert Lord, Wilson Mizner
Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Film Editing: Ray Curtiss, George Marks
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas
Music: Fred Fisher
Cast: Edward G. Robinson (James Francis Ahern), Mary Astor (Ruth Wayburn), Helen Vinson (Polly Cass), Russell Hopton (Albert J. Daniels), Kenneth Thomson (John Stanley), Shirley Grey (Edith Merriam), Berton Churchill (Donald Hadley Cass)
by Jeremy Arnold