|Edward G. Robinson
THE BIG FOUR
ROBINSON, CAGNEY, BOGART, MUNI
Some have been as good,
but no one has ever surpassed them.
Why do we love the old gangster movies? I’ve never seen a gangster in my lifetime that was anything close to the handsome, colorful, well-dressed movie mobsters of the 1930’s and 40’s. The truth is that Al Capone, Busy Siegel and Lucky Luciano were no different than the sociopathic, predatory, drive-by shooting monsters we have today. I think that we love the old gangster movies, and the gangsters themselves, because although they depict violent events by murdering men, there is never a drop of blood, the gangsters are almost child-like in their desire to look rich and be part of high society, they speak in amusing accents, and they are played by incredibly charismatic, strikingly appealing men. They speak in colorful language – guns are gats, rods, heaters; women are skirts, dolls, tomatos; policemen are coppers, bulls, flatfoots. I believe it is also because there is an element of safety in the fact that these movies are of a long-past era, the true horror diffused by the cloaking veil of black and white film.
|Humphrey Bogart and Ann Sheridan,
two great gangster movie favorites
The Big Three are the original talkie gangster movies released from 1931-32. First to be released was Little Caesar with Edward G. Robinson, January 25, 1931. Second was Public Enemy with James Cagney, April 23, 1931. Both were products of Warner Brothers. Another studio slipped in there, however, with one of the Big Three – Scarface with Paul Muni, released April 9, 1932 by United Artists, produced by Howard Hughes. Scarface was actually the first movie made – it was filmed in early 1930, but release was delayed for 2 years because of difficulties with censorship issues. It is said that Howard Hughes had finally had enough, and released the film in 1932 without censor approval. Interestingly, in my opinion, Scarface is the most sophisticated and realistic of the Big Three, with characters more 3-dimensional than the other two. The look and sound of Scarface was better as well, although it had been filmed before either of the other two.
Caesar Enrico Bandello was the first of the classic gangsters to hit the screen. Edward G. Robinson strutted into view and was given the name Little Caesar by a mob leader who meant it disparagingly. But we know better – Rico was born to murder and bully his way to the top, earning his title as most of the Roman Caesars did. Rico brought with him a friend who had done his share of robberies and shootings, Joe Massara, played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Robinson was 38 years old at the time, and Fairbanks only 23 and very handsome. Robinson said of himself, “Some people have youth, some beauty – I have menace.” Few movie gangsters are as menacing as Rico. To me, Rico is the least likeable of the Big Three. It isn’t just because of Robinson’s famous mannerisms, the sneer, his sarcastic “Yeah! See? Yeah!” Rico is a killing machine, never swerving from his path to the top. He hesitates only once in his murderous rise, and that involves his friend, Joe.
|Olga (Glenda Farrell) and Joe (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.)
|The great Edward G.
Tom Powers was introduced to viewers just three months after Rico met his death behind a billboard. James Cagney, at the age of 32, had originally been hired to play Matt Doyle, childhood friend, with Edward Woods as Tom. However, director William Wellman saw Cagney’s potential and switched the two. Tom Powers was as different from Rico as fish from fowl. Tom needed women, all types, all sizes, all ages. Tom is more likeable than Rico, although just as brutal and without sense of morality. We see Tom as a bad young boy whose father had a heavy hand with the razor strap when Tom was too bad. His mother (Beryl Mercer), on the other hand, is a nervous little pudding of a woman who can’t see any bad in her boy. Tom’s brother Mike (Donald Cook) takes the high road to education and decency. Tom’s descent into crime is helped along by seedy adults more than happy to take advantage of his natural tendencies to steal and bully. Tom and Matt grow up together to become partners in crime. Matt is always second banana to Tom, not as hard or ambitious, but always at Tom’s heel like a faithful puppy. Matt wants a more normal life, and he meets and marries Mamie (Joan Blondell), a girl perhaps a little off-color, but basically a good girl.
|The famous grapefruit scene
|Cagney on set, waiting to film the ambush scene!
|Eddie (Cagney and Gwen (Harlow)
|Eddie with brother Mike (Donald Wood)
and Mother (Beryl Mercer)
Tom: So beer ain't good enough for you, huh?
Mike: Do you think I care if there was just beer in that keg? I know what's in it. I know what you've been doing all this time, how you got those clothes and those new cars. You've been telling Ma that you've gone into politics that you're on the city payroll. Pat Burke told me everything. You murderers! There's not only beer in that jug. There's beer and blood - blood of men!
Tom: You ain't changed a bit. Besides, your hands ain't so clean. You killed and liked it. You didn't get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.
|"I ain't so tough."
As with Edward G. Robinson, Cagney’s success as a bad guy was also unexpected. He too was a very gentle man who loved the country, preferred song-and-dance parts, and wanted nothing to do with the Hollywood scene. One of the nicest anecdotes about Cagney tells that he would often leave early, claiming he was too ill to do any more shooting. This was to ensure an extra day of filming so the underpaid crew and extras could get additional salary. Can you see Tom Powers doing that? I don’t think so
|Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) with his "Chicago typewriter"
Tony Camonte was the third gangster big-shot to hit the screen and to me, he was the most realistic and frightening of the Big Three. While Rico was based upon Chicago mobster Salvatore Cardinella, and Tom Powers was inspired by Irish gangster boss Dean O’Bannion, Tony Camonte is 100% Al Capone. Capone was indicted for tax fraud and sentenced to prison in early 1932. Scarface was released April 9th of that year, and Capone did not report to prison until May. Capone saw the movie and loved it. Capone may have been good at bootlegging and murder, but he was not a very bright guy. The great Paul Muni, 36 years old at the time, makes him look like a murderous ape, an ignorant man who thinks he is smart and whistles an opera tune when he kills, a man who carries incestuous lust for his own sister, and who ends up yellow, begging for his life. I can’t imagine being thrilled to be portrayed like that, but then who can know what a man like Capone has in his head.
|Guino (George Raft) flipping the coin
|Cesca (beautiful Ann Dvorak)
In my opinion, Scarface is the best of the Big Three. The only flaw I can see in the movie is the character of Angelo, played by vaudeville comedian Vince Barnett. Angelo is Tony’s toady, and to me the character is extremely annoying in the attempt at comic relief. Perhaps the filmmakers thought it would distract viewers from the constant violence and sound of tommyguns, but it doesn’t work that way and is just irritating.
|Ma Martin (Marjorie Main)
|Baby Face and Francey (Claire Trevor)
|Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) and
old friend Father Jerry (Pat O'Brien)
|Rocky and the gang
|Rocky takes Fr. Jerry hostage
|Walking the Last Mile
|Danny Green (Frank McHugh) and
Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney)
|Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn), Jean
Sherman (Priscilla Lane) and Eddie
|Eddie and Panama (Gladys George)
|George Halley (Humphrey Bogart)
and Eddie face-to-face
|"He used to be a big shot."
|Velma (Joan Leslie)
|Marie and Roy
|Cody and Vic Pardo