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Mervyn LeRoy
Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Glenda Farrell, William Collier Jr., Sidney Blackmer, Ralph Ince, Thomas E. Jackson, Stanley Fields
Writing Credits:
W.R. Burnett (novel), Robert N. Lee (continuity), Francis Edward Faragoh, Francis Edward Faragoh (dialogue)

This classic crime story that made Edward G. Robinson a star deals with the rise and fall of a penny-ante crook who becomes the head of the mob, only to fall from grace as quickly as he rose.

Rated NR

Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 78 min.
Price: $19.97
Release Date: 1/25/2005

• Audio Commentary with Film Historian Richard Jewell
• “Warner Night at the Movies”
• “Little Caesar: End of Rico, Beginning of the Antihero” Featurette
• 1954 Re-Release Forward
• Trailer


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Harman/Kardon DPR 2005 7.1 Channel Receiver; Toshiba A-30 HD-DVD/1080p Upconverting DVD Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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Little Caesar (1931)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 3, 2009)

We take a look back at the classic era of gangster flicks with 1930’s Little Caesar. The film concentrates on Caesar Enrico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson), AKA “Little Caesar” or “Rico”. A common criminal who aspires to bigger things, he hooks on with the gang run by Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields). In the meantime, his former partner Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) becomes a dancer and tries to go straight. This leads to a steady gig and a romance with partner Olga Stassoff (Glenda Farrell).

However, his success as an entertainer doesn’t allow Joe to totally escape his prior life. Rico works his way up in Vettori’s gang and eventually stages a coup that allows him to become the head man. Along this path, he requires Joe to act in their schemes. The film follows Rico’s rise to power as well as Joe’s life and related elements.

During the movie’s first act, I feared that the Joe side of things would occupy much of the film’s brief running time. I got the impression that Caesar would throw in lots of Joe and Olga to give the flick a more traditional romantic side. After all, Robinson was no one’s matinee idol, so it looked like the movie would use Fairbanks in a prominent role to satisfy the female audience.

To my pleasant surprise, Caesar usually stays where we want it to stay: with Rico. After the first act, we barely see Olga other than as a subject of conflict between Rico and Joe. Indeed, Joe goes missing for substantial portions of the movie before he regains a fairly prominent part during the final act. That was fine with me. Joe offers a pretty dull character, and the film is much more interesting when it sticks with Rico.

Robinson’s fine lead performance aides in that regard. As written, Rico doesn’t provide a complex character of any sort; he’s a basic thug who aspires to grandeur. I can’t say that Robinson adds depth to the role, but he makes him fascinating nonetheless. Robinson created a powerful, swaggering portrait in cold, grasping ambition. The movie’s enduring fame clearly rests upon Robinson’s strong performance.

In other ways, Caesar proves less compelling. The only interesting supporting character comes from Sgt. Thomas Flaherty (Thomas Jackson), the cop who persistently pursues Rico. There’s a good chemistry between Robinson and Jackson; I like the back and forth as they spar with each other, and I wish the movie featured more of their interactions.

Unfortunately, we get too much of milquetoast Joe and dippy Olga. Caesar veers off onto too many dull subplots at times, though this tendency decreases as it progresses. The story digs into Rico’s tale in a more satisfying way as it progresses, so at least it manages to build to an interesting conclusion.

Still, Little Caesar would be pretty forgettable gangster drama without its lead actor. Edward G. Robinson almost single-handedly takes a fairly wooden movie and makes it compelling. He keeps us involved and entertained.

The DVD Grades: Picture C+/ Audio C/ Bonus B-

Little Caesar appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. What a different a few months make! While 1931’s The Public Enemy offered strong visuals, Caesar suffered from more than a few problems.

None of which seemed unusual for a movie from 1930, though. For the most part, sharpness seemed fine. More than a few soft shots cropped up through the flick – usually in wider elements – but most of the film demonstrated adequate to good delineation. I noticed no issues with moiré effects or jagged edges, and I also failed to detect any edge haloes.

Black levels also looked fairly solid. Dark tones were usually deep and rich, although occasionally the picture seemed a bit too bright. Shadow detail was fairly nice, though vaguely murky at times. Still, blacks and contrast were a reasonably good part of the transfer.

The image's main weakness came from the very frequent intrusion of defects. The print seemed very grainy, and other flaws appeared through the majority of the film. I witnessed scratches, hairs, speckles, spots and other problems like running vertical lines. Given the flick’s vintage, this remained a watchable image, but it showed too many problems for a grade above a “C+”.

Also flawed but acceptable was Little Caesar's monaural sound. As one would expect, it's a very modest affair, with the emphasis on dialogue. Though the film featured a minor score, speech dominated the soundtrack. Dialogue was adequate for its age. The lines could be a bit muddled, but they were acceptably clear and remained intelligible.

Effects sounded thin but decent, and the occasional examples of music also appeared adequate for their age. A frequent layer of background noise - mainly in the form of hiss and some pops - marred the audio to a minor degree. This was an average track for its era.

A few extras come with Little Caesar. We get an audio commentary from film historian Richard Jewell. He offers a running, screen-specific discussion of the film that looks at its influence on the genre and its use of sound, elements of the dialogue, characters and themes, how real-life characters and situations impacted the flick, visual design, cast and crew, censorship issues, and a few other production topics.

On the negative side, Jewell sometimes tends to simply narrate the movie, and a little dead air occurs. Nonetheless, he manages to fill his commentary with a reasonable amount of worthwhile material. Despite the tracks flaws, Jewell manages to produce some good facts about the flick, so this becomes a fairly informative piece.

Next comes the 40-second 1954 Re-release Forward. This text also mentions The Public Enemy and warns us of our public duty to “clean up” gangsters. It’s odd and would create a jarring conclusion to the film.

A creative and fun addition to the set, Warner Night at the Movies attempts to replicate the cinematic experience circa 1931. As explained via a four-minute and three-second introduction from Leonard Maltin, this feature includes a trailer for Five Star Final, a flick from the same era as Caesar, plus a period newsreel, an animated short called Lady Play Your Mandolin and a live-action short entitled The Hard Guy. These are the kinds of pieces that might have preceded a theatrical showing of Caesar, so if you activate this feature, you get an attempt to duplicate a night at the cinema. I like this program and think it’s quite clever. Use the “Play All” option to run each of these features and then automatically launch into Caesar.

In addition to the trailer for Caesar, the disc includes a new documentary called Little Caesar: End of Rico, Beginning of the Antihero. This 17-minute and six-second program presents movie clips, archival materials, and interviews. We hear from author/film critic Gerald Peary, author/film professor Robert Sklar, filmmaker Martin Scorsese, author Mark A. Vieira, USC film professor Drew Casper, filmmaker/film historian Alain Silver, actor Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and author/film critic Andrew Sarris. The participants cover the roots of the project and aspects of the era that influenced, story elements and the situation at Warner Bros., casting and facets of the performances, sound design, and the movie’s impact.

Expect a decent overview from “Antihero”. With only 17 minutes at its disposal, the program doesn’t get much time to dig into details. That said, it covers the basics in a competent manner and lets us get a good glimpse of the film and its era.

While influential and important as an early gangster flick, Little Caesar can look dated to modern eyes. That doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t entertain, though, as a stellar lead performance from Edward G. Robinson ensures that we remain interested in the movie despite its weaknesses. The DVD provides average picture and audio along with a few decent extras. This becomes an acceptable release for a seminal film.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3 Stars Number of Votes: 3
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