[box cover]

Little Caesar

Little Caesar (1931), the seminal gangster film that became the signature piece in Edward G. Robinson's varied career, tells the rags-to-blood-soaked riches story of Caesar Enrico "Rico" Bandello, a Depression-era hoodlum determined to become more than "just another mug from the streets." After a successful robbery of a small-town gas station, Rico and his friend Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) head for New York City where Joe becomes a dancer in a gambling club and Rico quickly muscles his way into a position as second lieutenant to the city's crime boss. Joe falls in love with a dancer named Olga (Glenda Farrell), while Rico continues his rise through the ranks to become head of the gang — eventually running afoul of the new police commissioner (Landers Stevens) and attempting to eliminate the Boss of Bosses. But he wants Joe's help, and Joe wants out of the gang — leading to a tragic confrontation and Robinson's famous dying query, "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?" Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, Little Caesar was one of the first films of the popular new genre, arriving within a year or two of the gangland dramas I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Scarface, The Public Enemy, and LeRoy's Numbered Men. Low-budget, somber, and bluntly straightforward, this pre-code morality tale was a hard-hitting indictment of the gangster's lifestyle. Watching it today, Robinson's performance is still outstanding — the actor was a gentle man in real life, an art collector who disliked guns, but his lack of conventional good looks along with his success in Little Caesar stereotyped him forever as a thug. Other actors, even Fairbanks, are less impressive in the film, their characters less well-defined and a tad one-dimensional. Still, Little Caesar is an iconographic mob film, the prototype for thousands of movies of its type to come. Warner's DVD release is part of their six-disc "Gangsters Collection," and the film looks as good as one could probably hope. Yes, there are still some lines, specks, and scratches — but the full-screen transfer (1.33:1) has been restored and digitally remastered, making the 75-year-old classic look far better than it has in years. The monaural Dolby Digital audio (with available subtitles in English, French, and Spanish) is also very good. Extras include a "Warner Night at the Movies" feature hosted by Leonard Maltin, offering a 1930 newsreel, the Spencer Tracy short "The Hard Guy," the 1931 Merry Melodies cartoon "Lady Play Your Mandolin," and a selection of trailers from 1930 and '31; a featurette, "Little Caesar: End of Rico, Beginning of the Antihero" (17 min.); a commentary by film historian Richard B. Jewell, who knows a lot about the subject but has an unfortunately irritating voice; and the original theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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