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Adapted from W. R. Burnett’s novel, Little Caesar tells the story of Rico’s rise and fall as he chases the American dream. But as the film’s opening warns, those who “take the sword shall perish with the sword” and Rico finds that his devilish ways only bring a false victory.
This classic gangster film helped launch the careers of Edward G. Robinson and director Mervyn LeRoy while also solidifying the gangster genre, which American audiences were craving to see more of.
Warner Brothers studio head Jack Warner first got his hands on the novel in 1929 thanks to the recommendation of a songwriter. With nothing else to do on a train ride, he decided why not read it.
“Incidentally, the novel... was one of the few novels I read from cover to cover as a potential picture property,” he wrote in his autobiography.
While reading, Warner immediately recognized the “thinly disguised portrait of Al Capone,” who was making headlines in 1929 with the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
According to Warner, LeRoy wanted Clark Gable for the lead (LeRoy claims he wanted him for Joe, a part which went to Douglas Fairbanks Jr.).
Either way, Jack didn’t think the “guy with the big ears” would be the right fit.
It was agent Frank Joyce who suggested Edward G. Robinson, who at the time was already playing a gangster on Broadway in The Racket.
Warner wrote, “I always liked and admired Gable, but after seeing Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar, I knew I had not made a mistake. He turned into a great star overnight, and has been my good friend all these years.”
Ironically, while playing a gangster set him up, Robinson couldn’t have been more different in real life from his cold characters.
In fact, according to LeRoy, Edward flinched at the sound of a gun take after take until they had to “tape up his eyelids to make sure it wouldn’t show.”
While other gangster films allowed their lead to change his life around before the end credits, this film showed Rico was crooked until the end. Producer Darryl Zanuck said, “This guy is no good at all. It’ll go over big.”
It went over so big, in fact, that the police were called when a crowd of three thousand rushed to see the picture one night in January 1931.
Along with being a box office smash, expressions and gangster lingo from the film – like “you can dish it out, but you can’t take it” – became popular, especially among young audiences.
LeRoy said, “The film… established me as a topflight director… [It] raised my salary by a thousand dollars a week, and now I was hot in town.”
It seems the film helped everyone except the person who inspired it all.
Only a few months after Little Caesar’s release, Al Capone pled guilty to tax evasion, and in October, he was sentenced to eleven years in prison. After serving his time, Scareface’s health had declined so much that he never returned to the Chicago mob scene and remained in Florida until his death in 1947.