Pre Code Confidential #28: Edward G. Robinson in LITTLE CAESAR (Warner Brothers 1931)

Gangster movies were nothing new in 1931. Josef von Sternberg’s UNDERWORLD (1927), Lewis Milestone’s THE RACKET (1928), and Bryan Foy’s LIGHTS OF NEW YORK (1929) had all dealt with urban organized crime onscreen (and Foy’s drama was the first “all-talking picture” to hit cinemas). But when Edward G. Robinson rat-a-tatted his way through Mervyn LeRoy’s LITTLE CAESAR, the gangster genre had finally arrived – with a vengeance! This highly influential flick opened the floodgates for a variety of films about mobsters, killers, and other assorted no-goodniks, and made an unlikely star out of the pugnacious Eddie G.

The film concerns the rise and fall of Rico “Little Caesar” Bandello, a small-time hood from the sticks who, along with partner in crime Joe Massara, moves to the big city and blasts his way up the ranks to become a gang boss. The diminutive Robinson exudes star power as the psychotic sociopath who cares about nothing but himself, and craves power over everything. Robinson’s a cocky bantam rooster, strutting and swaggering his way across the screen; he’s a vicious animal to be certain, but you can’t take your eyes off him. Although he had a long Hollywood career (but believe it or not, never won an Oscar!), it’s as Rico most people remember him by, thanks to numerous bad impressionists and cartoon characters (i.e. THE KING AND ODIE’s Biggie Rat).

Film scholars make a lot about the homosexual subtext in LITTLE CAESAR: Rico’s got no time for dames, preferring the company of his fellow crooks; his close relationship with Joe, deriding him for keeping company with dancer Olga Stassoff; the fauning gangster Otero, who beams as his boss checks himself out in the mirror, donned in a tux. Though nothing is explicit or overt it’s definitely there, hidden in the shadows like like homosexuality itself during those more puritanical times.

What stands out even more for me is the proto-noir flourishes that appear throughout the film. LeRoy and his DP Tony Gaudio use devices such as montage and fades, and many of the scenes (William Collier Jr’s murder on the church steps, for example) precede the film noir movement by a good ten years. Gaudio’s fluid camerawork and Ray Curtiss’s slick editing keep LITTLE CAESAR from being static, unlike many early talkies, and that famous final scene, as the defiant Rico, trodding down a wind-swirled lonely street, gets cut down by the Tommy gun blast of copper Thomas E. Jackson, uttering the now-classic line “Mother of Mercy, is the the end of Rico?”, remains a highlight of Hollywood cinema. Mervyn LeRoy may not be a name that springs to mind when thinking of film noir influences, but films like this one, FIVE STAR FINAL , THREE ON A MATCH , and I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG tell a different story.

Young (21 at the time of filming) Douglas Fairbanks Jr. also makes an impression here as Rico’s pal Joe Massara, a hoofer who wants to put his life of crime behind him after falling for Olga (Glenda Farrell in her film debut). George E. Stone as henchman Otero, infatuated with boss Rico, gives another of his outstanding supporting performances. Other cast members of note include the aforementioned Jackson as the laconic cop out to get Rico, Stanley Fields as the dimwitted ex-capo Sam Vettori, and Sidney Blackmer as the dapper boss ‘Big Boy’.

LITTLE CAESAR can be enjoyed on many different levels: as an influential  piece of Hollywood history, a precursor to film noir, or Edward G. Robinson’s star-making turn. But for me, it’s just damn good entertainment, a rip-roaring crime saga that outguns the rest of them, and the granddaddy of all gangster flicks to come.

 

Pre Code Confidential #18: FIVE STAR FINAL (Warner Brothers 1931)

Tabloid journalism has been around far longer than the cable “news” channels of today, with their 24 hour a day barrage of nonstop sleazy scandals and “fake news”. A circulation war between publishers Joseph Pulitzer (New York World) and William Randolph Hearst (New York Journal) in the 1890’s, filled with sensationalized headlines and mucho muckraking, gave birth to the term “Yellow Journalism”, derived from Richard Outcault’s guttersnipe character The Yellow Kid in his comic strip Hogan’s Alley, which appeared in both papers. This legacy of dirt-digging and gossip-mongering continued through the decades in supermarket rags like The National Enquirer and World Weekly News, leading us to where we are today with the so-called “mainstream media” stretching credibility to the max and bogus Internet click-bait sites abounding. All of which leads me to FIVE STAR FINAL, a Pre-Code drama about headhunting for headlines starring Edward G. Robinson and a colorful supporting cast.

Robinson and director Mervyn LeRoy , fresh off the hit gangster epic LITTLE CAESAR, reunited for this sordid little tale as E.G. plays Randall, managing editor of the fictional New York Gazette, pressured by his publisher to boost sagging sales by jazzing things up with girlie pics and juicy scandals. Rehashing the twenty year old Nancy Voorhees murder case, in which a young secretary shot and killed her boss/lover, Randall assembles his team to dig up everything they can on her life today. Staff floozie Kitty Carmody hunts down her whereabouts; Nancy is now Mrs. Michael Townsend, whose daughter Jenny is about to be wed to wealthy manufacturing heir Phillip Weeks.

Isopod, an ex-divinity student ejected for drinking and lasciviousness, impersonates a reverend and visits the Townsends, learning the couple is afraid all this bad publicity will harm Jenny, who was born out-of-wedlock and isn’t Michael’s child. A drunken Isopod brings the scoop back to Randall and the smear campaign is on! A distraught Nancy ends up committing suicide; when Michael finds the body he follows suit. Kitty and her photographer sneak into the Townsend’s apartment and take a pic of the two bodies on their bathroom floor. The scandal causes the upper crust Weeks’s to demand the wedding be called off, and a hysterical Jenny grabs a gun and confronts Randall, Isopod, and publisher Hinchcliffe in an amazingly tense dramatic scene, concluding with Randall telling Hinchcliffe just what he can do with his bloody paper!

Robinson’s staccato line delivery and perpetual scowl make Randall seem as real a newspaper man as you can get. Reluctant at first to sensationalize his paper, he dives right into the mudpit to deliver the goods. His forlorn face when he learns of the tragedy is unforgettable, and his compulsive hand washing throughout the movie suggests a man who can never get all the filth off of them. The fact that Robinson, who gave brilliant performances in films like DR. EHRLICH’S MAGIC BULLET, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, SCARLET STREET , KEY LARGO , and so many others, never won an Oscar, only awarded a posthumous statuette two months after his death, is another black eye on the Academy.

A pre-FRANKENSTEIN Boris Karloff plays the unctuous reporter Isopod, a leering slimebag of a man just as creepy as any monster or mad doctor he ever played… maybe creepier! Ona Munson (GONE WITH THE WIND’s Belle Watling) is Kitty, the girl who’s “been around”, George E. Stone (E.G.’s LITTLE CAESAR henchman) is Ziggie, a street hardened “idea man”, and Aline MacMahon makes her film debut as Randall’s secretary Miss Taylor, who’s secretly in love with her boss. Marian Marsh as Jenny is cloying at first, but heats things up when she becomes unhinged at the end. Veterans H.B. Warner and Frances Starr as Michael and Nancy are okay, but Anthony Bushell is rah-ther wooden as Phillip. Familiar Faces include Oscar Apfel, Gladys Lloyd (Mrs. Edward G. Robinson), and the hypnotic Polly Walters as an uncredited switchboard operator.

One innovative scene I found fascinating was a triple-split screen with Nancy frantically trying to call Randall and Hinchcliffe, leading to her death. Le Roy moves his camera to good effect; the film is rarely static, yet LeRoy’s work as director seems to get overlooked in conversations among film buffs today. FIVE STAR FINAL is admittedly creaky in some spots, but overall holds up well, and is as relevant in today’s world as it was 87 years ago. The more things change, the more they remain the same… and more’s the pity.

Richard Outcault’s The Yellow Kid

Happy Birthday Peter Lorre: THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK (Columbia 1941)

In honor of Cracked Rear Viewer’s second anniversary, I’m re-presenting my first post from June 26, 2015. I’ve re-edited it and added some pictures, something I didn’t know how to do at first. My, how times change! Anyway, I hope you enjoy this look at an early noir classic. (Coincidentally, this is also Mr. Lorre’s birthday!)

The sinister star Peter Lorre was born in Hungary on June 26, 1904. He became a big screen sensation as the child killer in Fritz Lang’s German classic M (1931), and like many Jews in Germany at the time, fled the Nazi regime, landing in Britain in 1933. Lorre worked with Alfred Hitchcock there in the original THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, then immigrated to America, starring in films like MAD LOVE  , CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, and the Mr. Moto series. In 1940, the actor starred in what many consider the first film noir, STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR. The next year Lorre appeared in another early noir, THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK, directed by the underrated Frenchman Robert Florey. In it Lorre plays a young Hungarian immigrant like himself, only under much, much different circumstances.

Janos Szabo has come to America to find work and live the American dream. He’s befriended by police Lt. O’Hara ( Don Beddoe ), who buys the naïve newcomer a five dollar lunch and directs him to the Excelsior Palace, a low rent hotel. When another border’s negligence causes the joint to go up in flames, Janos is trapped inside, and suffers a horrible disfigurement.

O’Hara feels responsible for the poor guy’s plight and writes a message on one of his calling cards for Janos to contact him when he’s released from the hospital. Now unable to find work due to his terribly scarred visage, Janos goes to the waterfront, contemplating suicide. He meets up with a petty crook named Dinky, who takes a liking to Janos. Dinky has a safe cracking job lined up but falls ill, and asks Janos to take his place. The Hungarian, good with his hands, takes care of business. When Dinky’s former comrades show up wanting to know why they weren’t in on the score, the four decide to form a crime gang, with Janos (now nicknamed Johnny) as the ringleader. A crime wave ensues, baffling the police, and putting O’Hara under pressure to end the larcenous spree quickly as possible.

Janos wants the illicit dough so he can have plastic surgery and restore his features. A rubber mask is made from his passport photo for him to wear until the doctor returns. When the doc (Frank Reicher, KING KONG’s   Captain Englehorn)  finally does see Janos, he informs him the facial nerves have suffered too much damage, and it would take fifteen years before any progress could be made!

Disheartened, Janos leaves the doctor’s office, where he (literally) bumps into Helen Williams. Helen is blind, but she can sense the goodness still inside the scarred master criminal. Eventually, Janos comes clean to her about his face, but not his illegal activities. Helen is played by the beautiful Evelyn Keyes , best known as “Scarlet O’Hara’s Younger Sister” (the name of her autobiography) in GONE WITH THE WIND.

Now in love with Helen, and with plenty of money stashed away, Janos decides to leave his life of crime behind and settle down in the country. This doesn’t sit well with his former cronies, especially Jeff, the gang’s new leader. When the cop’s calling card (remember?) is found in Janos’s old desk, they fear their former boss has turned stool pigeon. The gang beats and tortures Dinky, who knows Janos’s whereabouts, and force him to spill the beans. Jeff and the crew pay a visit to Janos and his new bride, and while Jeff delivers a warning, the gang plants a bomb in his car, connected to the radio. Dinky gets dumped to the side of the road, badly beaten and shot, but manages to get to a phone and warn Janos. But it’s too late. While Helen’s unpacking the car, she wants to hear some music, turns on the radio, and KA-BOOM! She sadly dies in Janos’s arms.

Dinky’s still alive though, and tells Janos the gang has chartered a plane and are going on the lam. They take to the air and head west, unaware that Janos has ambushed the pilot and is flying the plane. He lands them smack in the middle of the Arizona desert and tells them he’s stranding them all there to die a slow, painful death. Soon after, O’Hara gets a hot tip and flies west to discover a gruesome tableau. The gang members are all dead, including Janos, who’s been tied to the plane’s wing. O’Hara finds an explanation note in his little friend’s pocket, along with the five bucks for the lunch O’Hara bought him long ago.

Lorre is superb as a man trapped in circumstances beyond his control, showing his wide range of emotion as an actor. Keyes is also good as the doomed Helen, proving she would’ve been a much bigger star with better roles. THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK features plenty of Familiar Faces from Columbia’s roster of contract players, including George E. Stone , Cy Schindell, John Tyrell , and George McKay. (The name Janos, by the way, was obviously inspired from the Roman god Janus, always depicted with two faces!) Peter Lorre went on to become one of the screen’s busiest character actors, appearing in classics like THE MALTESE FALCON, CASABLANCA , THREE STRANGERS, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA , and many, many more. He ended his career working alongside Vincent Price in a string of Roger Corman/Edgar Allen Poe thrillers before succumbing to a stroke on March 23, 1964 at age 59. He left a legacy of fantastic film work, and THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK gave him one of his best starring roles. Fans of Lorre and those who want to see the beginnings of what became known as film noir will want to watch this gripping little crime drama. Happy birthday, Mr. Lorre!

Double Bogie: THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE (1938) and YOU CAN’T GET AWAY WITH MURDER (1939)

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Before Humphrey Bogart became the screen icon known as “Bogie”, he paid his dues as a Warner Brothers contract player, usually cast as a second fiddle gangster who winds up getting filled full of lead by the likes of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. It wasn’t until 1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON that Bogart hit the big time, remaining a box office star until his death from cancer in 1956. Here’s a look at two early movies that typecast Bogie again as a gangster, with wildly different results.

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1938’s THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE is supposedly a comedy, starring Edward G. Robinson  as a Park Avenue surgeon who’s researching a book about the physiology of criminals, mainly by ripping off his high society friends. He meets up with female fence Jo Keller (Claire Trevor in another of her hard dame roles) and gangster  Rocks Valentine (Bogie). Clitterhouse, dubbed “Professor” by the crooks, takes over the gang, much to Rocks’ chagrin, and studies the goons while they work. Rocks double crosses him during a fur warehouse job, locking the doctor in a refrigerated vault. After escaping, Clitterhouse decides he’s done enough research and is ready to retire. But Rocks has other plans after finding the doctor’s notes, and threatens to reveal his role in the crimes unless Clitterhouse agrees to set up his society pals.

Clitterhouse hasn’t researched the “ultimate crime” yet though… murder! He drops some pyridyl chloride tabs into Rocks’ whiskey, causing an overdose, and dumps the body in the river. Dr. Clitterhouse finally confesses to his crimes, stating everything he did was in the interest of science. He tries to prove himself sane, but the jury disagrees, finding him not guilty by reason of insanity, claiming “an insane man cannot writer a sane book”.

Edward G. Robinson (Dr. T.S. Clitterhouse) is fascinated with the working of the criminal mind. He joins a gang of crooks headed by Humphrey Bogart (Rocks Valentine) for whom Clitterhouse masterminds a series of heists. With Maxie Rosenbloom (Butch) and Claire Trevor (Jo Keller).

Robinson is far too good for this mess, but manages to rise above the mediocre material. Claire Trevor hadn’t quite hit her stride yet as Queen of Noir, and she isn’t really given much to do here. The Warner Brothers Rogue’s Gallery is on hand as the gang members (Maxie Rosenbloom, Allen Jenkins , Curt Bois, Vladimir Sokoloff, and a young Ward Bond ), while Donald Crisp, Henry O’Neill, John Litel, and Gale Page represent law and order. Listen close and you’ll hear Ronald Reagan’s  voice as a radio announcer, his former occupation before hitting Hollywood. Another recent Hollywood arrival, Anatole Litvak, directed as if he’d never seen a gangster picture before.

As for Humphrey Bogart, he is said to have absolutely despised this film. Wouldn’t you, if your character name was Rocks Valentine? He referred to it as “The Amazing Dr. Clitoris” among friends. The one good thing to come out of it for Bogie was he became friends with co-screenwriter John Huston. When Huston was tabbed to direct his first film, THE MALTESE FALCON, he chose Bogie to play the lead, Sam Spade. This was the beginning of a long collaboration for the two men, “the stuff that dreams are made of”, to quote Spade.

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Much better is YOU CAN’T GET AWAY WITH MURDER, released in 1939. Bogart gets top billing in this B-movie, but he’s still playing second fiddle. Dead End Kid Billy Halop plays the lead as Johnny, a young punk who lives in Hell’s Kitchen with his sister Madge, and detests her straight-laced boyfriend Fred. He’d rather hang out with local hood Frank Wilson (Bogart), who takes him under his wing. Soon the pair steal a car and rob a gas station. Johnny steals Fred’s gun, and Frank uses it in a pawn shop stick-up, killing the proprietor. Fred is arrested for the murder, while Johnny and Frank get pinched for the gas station job.

All three are sent to Sing Sing, with Fred on Death Row. Johnny has a crisis of conscience; does he rat out his pal Frank, or let Fred fry in the hot seat? Frank and his thug pals plan a jailbreak, and take Johnny along with the intent of capping him, eliminating the possibility of him cracking under pressure. Johnny and Frank are the only two who make it out, and during a gun battle with the screws Frank puts a slug in Johnny’s  gut. Frank then gives himself up, but the still alive Johnny tells the authorities the truth. The youth is taken to the operating table but doesn’t pull through; however he gets to make amends with Madge and Fred before he dies.

If you can get past the  Brooklynese “dese, dems , and doses”,  you’ll find a good performance from Halop. The leader of the Dead End Kids in films like DEAD END, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, and THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL goes solo here, and shines as a slum kid angry at the world, putting up a tough guy front to mask his fear. The scenes with sister Gale Page are kind of schmaltzy, but don’t distract too much from the action. Bogart gives his stock gangster characterization as the vicious hood Frank, a follow-up of sorts to his Baby Face Martin in DEAD END. He’s good, but we’ve seen it done before.

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Henry Travers (Clarence the Angel from IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) is on hand as Pop, an old con who befriends Johnny. Harold Huber, Joe Sawyer, and George E. Stone are hardened criminals, and much to my surprise, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson shows up as one of the prisoners. Harvey Stephens is much too bland as Fred… no wonder Johnny decides to follow Bogie! And no,  that’s not James Cagney’s son in the neighborhood pool hall scene. It’s Frankie Burke, a Cagney lookalike who played the actor as a youngster in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES. Lewis Seiler keeps things zipping along; he had a long but undistinguished Hollywood career.

Humphrey Bogart continued to dwell in “B” purgatory until receiving good reviews in 1941’s HIGH SIERRA, which led to THE MALTESE FALCON and movie immortality. Watching his 1930’s efforts, we get a brief glimpse into what was to come. Of the two, I’d watch YOU CAN’T GET AWAY WITH MURDER again; far as THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE goes, once was enough.

 

 

 

 

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