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.

 

Naughty Or Nice: SUSAN SLEPT HERE (RKO 1954)

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Looking for something a little offbeat in a Christmas movie? Try SUSAN SLEPT HERE, a film that could never get made today, as it concerns the romance between a 17 year old girl and a 35 year old man. I know some of you out there are already screaming “EEEEWWW!!!”, but indulge me while I describe the madcap moments leading to said romance.

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For starters, the movie is narrated by Oscar. Not Oscar Levant, but THE Oscar, the fabled Academy Awards statuette. This particular Oscar was won by Mark Christopher, screenwriter of fluffy Hollywood comedies yearning to pen a dramatic yarn and prove his mettle as a writer. Into his life comes teenage Susan Landis, a juvenile delinquent dumped on his doorstep by two cops who don’t want to lock her up til after the holidays. They figure Mark can watch her and get a good story idea in the process before she winds up on a prison farm until she turns 18.

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This idea doesn’t sit well Susan, who thinks the old rascal wants to get in her pants. Mark’s fiancé, the blonde ice princess Isabella, isn’t too happy with the situation either. Susan soon begins to fall for Mark’s kindness and gives him a big kiss under the misseltoe, just when his pal Virgil and attorney Harvey walk in the door. Mark decides he’s going to marry Susan – in name only, of course – in order to keep her out of the hoosegow, so he drives her over state lines for a quickie Vegas wedding, and keeps her up dancing all night so they won’t have time to consummate the honeymoon. Then Mark and his secretary Maude take off for Sun Valley so he can work on his script, leaving Susan alone with Virgil.

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Lawyer Harvey tries to get Susan to sign annulment papers, but she refuses. Later, Harvey sees Susan at a lunch counter- eating strawberries and pickles! Fearing the worst, he calls Mark to chastise him for getting her pregnant, but innocent Mark thinks it’s Virgil that did the dirty deed while he was away. Alls well that ends well, as we find out Susan’s not really preggo, she just digs eating strawberries and pickles! Mark soon realizes he’s fallen in love with Susan, and she pulls him into the bedroom to, uh, well… consummate!

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Screenwriter Alex Gottleib peppers his script with plenty of double entendrees and innuendoes, but it’s Frank Tashlin’s direction that makes the film come to life. Tashlin got his start in cartoons, working for animation studios Terrytoons, Van Buren, Ub Iwerks, Screen Gems, and most notably Warner Brothers’ “Looney Tunes”, cranking out classics with Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and (during the war) Private Snafu. He put his cartoon training to good use in films starring Martin & Lewis (ARTISTS AND MODELS, HOLLYWOOD OR BUST), Bob Hope (SON OF PALEFACE), and many of Jerry Lewis’s early solo efforts. Tashlin was also responsible for two of the 50’s funniest comedies, THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT and WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?, both with Jayne Mansfield. Most of his films resemble live-action cartoons, with wild sight gags galore, and filled with vibrant, eye-popping Technicolor, captured in SUSAN SLEPT HERE by Nicholas Musuraca, usually associated with the dark world of film noir!

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22 year old Debbie Reynolds plays 17 year old Susan, and she’s a frantic, funny ball of energy as the delinquent teen. 50 year old Dick Powell plays 35 year old Mark, and the difference in their ages really shows. You can tell he’s uncomfortable about the whole thing, and the filmmakers wisely chose to make Debbie the aggressor, chasing Powell with wild abandon. There’s a crazy dream sequence that has Powell in a spangled sailor suit, harkening back to his early Warner Bros musical days, with Debbie a sweet little bird in a gilded cage, and lovely Anne Francis (Isabella) as the Spider-Woman coming between them.

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Glenda Farrell , who was Powell’s age but looks much older, is his girl Friday Maude, and she gets the best lines, calling Isabella “Dracula’s daughter”, having an exchange with Powell’s maid (Maid: “Didn’t he just write a hit for Jane Russell?” Glenda: “His story is NOT what made that picture a hit!”), and this bit with Virgil; Him: “What do you know about motherhood?” Her: “I happened to have typed the script for ‘Stella Dallas’!”. Virgil is Alvy Moore, best known as Mr. Kimball on TV’s GREEN ACRES. Other Familiar Faces are Herb Vigran and Horace McMahon as the cops, Les Tremayne as the lawyer, and bits from Benny Rubin, Ellen Corby, Rita Johnson, and in a funny cameo, Red Skelton .

Times and tastes change, and Tashlin’s 50’s films today may be considered sexist. I like his stuff, as he brings that cartoony sensibility to all his films. You’ll have to decide for yourselves whether SUSAN SLEPT HERE belongs on your Christmas watch-list. I enjoyed it, it’s full of Hollywood in-jokes and skewers all Tashlin’s favorite targets- teenagers, television, psychiatry, and SEX! Give it a shot; if you feel offended by it, I’ll be glad to send you a safety pin.

Remembering Lionel Atwill: DOCTOR X (1932) and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933)

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When film fans think of their Mount Rushmore of horror stars, a few names immediately come to mind. Boris Karloff. Bela Lugosi. Lon Chaney (Sr & Jr). Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee. One name usually omitted is Lionel Atwill. Which is a shame, because the actor was front and center at the beginning of the horror cycle of the 1930s. While hard-core horror buffs certainly know his work, Atwill is best remembered today for his supporting role as the wooden-armed Inspector Krough in 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. But at the dawn of the Golden Age of Horror, Lionel Atwill starred in two of the earliest fright classics, both produced by Warner Brothers: DOCTOR X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM.

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DOCTOR X is more along the lines of an “old dark house” mystery, with dashes of the new horror genre added for extra spice. Dr. Xavier (Atwill) is called in by the police in the matter of the “Moon Killer” murders, involving a cannibalistic madman. The cops say these murders could only be caused by a special scalpel used at Xavier’s academy. The doctor, worried about bringing bad publicity to his research, asks for 48 hours to investigate on his own. Meanwhile, nosy reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) is snooping around trying to get a sensationalistic scoop. We’re introduced to Xavier’s faculty, and they’re an odd lot indeed: one-handed Dr. Wells (Preston Foster) is an expert on cannibalism, Dr. Haines (John Wray) a brain surgeon once shipwrecked in Tahiti under mysterious circumstances, and Drs. Duke and Rowitz (Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe), studiers of astronomy. Taylor goes to Xavier’s estate to dig up some info, where he’s thrown out by Xavier’s lovely daughter Joanne (scream queen Fay Wray). He manages to find out Xavier is bringing his faculty out to Cliff Shoales manor, and follows along.

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