March 13, 2011

Little Caesar (1931)

Have any of you ever wondered what English must sound like to non-English speakers?  Well, I have.  Growing up speaking nothing but English I have never had any problems understanding spoken English.  I'd listen to other languages and think how interesting and completely different they sound, because I don't understand any of their words.  I knew on a logical level that these same people must feel the same about English when they hear it, but I could never imagine what it might actually sound like to them.

Now I can.

"Little Caesar" is the first full talkie we've seen, and it was so difficult to understand that I had to turn the subtitles on about five minutes into it just to keep up.  This is not only due to the completely different slang of the 30's, but to the incredible speed these actors spoke at combined with their nasal gangster accents.  There were literally times in the movie where they spoke so fast and so unintelligibly that I felt like I was watching a movie in a foreign language.  What a trippy feeling that was.

Anyway, this film was interesting, although I didn't exactly like it.  I didn't hate it...I just felt kind of confused throughout rather than entertained.  This movie marks the rise of the antihero - the "protagonist" in this story is actually a selfish, cruel, heartless gangster.  This is not someone you'd ordinarily root for, and yet I got the feeling that that's exactly what the movie was trying to accomplish.  Unfortunately, at least for me, they failed.  I couldn't identify with Rico (Little Caesar) and I wanted him to get his comeuppance.  I just couldn't make myself care about his plight.

Now, I know a good part of that is the fact that I don't live in the Great Depression.  Gangster films were incredibly popular during that time because they often had a dark and negative outlook on life that mirrored what was going on in reality.  We studied this briefly last semester in my Frontier as Myth class.  During the Depression, Westerns pretty much vanished from the scene and were replaced with gangster flicks.  These new movies didn't end with the hero getting the girl and riding off into the sunset to live happily ever after.  More often, the "hero" ended up dying in the streets.  It's really quite pessimistic stuff.  You'd think that people who suffered all day in the Depression would want to see happy  movies to cheer them up - not stuff that would drag them further down!

Anyway, with that background in mind, I know that I bring an entirely different perspective to the film than the original audience did.  I think the film intended audiences to identify with Rico as this poor nobody who manages to make it big, but like all the rich people who put their faith in the stock market, his crash back into obscurity came just as fast and as hard as his rise did.  I'm sure people could identify with that.  Too bad Rico is so unlikeable.  And it's also too bad that gangster movies have been so parodied since the 30s that Rico and his cohorts came off looking and sounding more like cartoon characters than scary gangsters.  Again, a problem with my perspective - the original audience wouldn't have thought this.

Rico himself was a slimy little guy.  At times he looked like Dracula, and at other times he looked like a weaselly used car salesman.  His voice was super nasal and just weird sounding - I can't imagine that was his real voice; it had to be an act (and honestly I wish he hadn't spoken like that because it was not only distracting but incredibly annoying.)  Every time he spoke, I just kept picturing these guys:

Yeah...not exactly threatening.  I find it interesting that Disney chose weasels to be their gangsters in Roger Rabbit.  Perhaps the animators watched this movie for inspiration.

I don't really have too much else to say about this movie.  Rico got what was coming to him, and the world went on turning.  In the end, Rico's gangster antics didn't make much difference to the world at large.  He was just another forgettable punk in a city of punks.  Perhaps that's the movie's ultimate message - if you're ever lucky enough to become somebody, don't ever forget that you can lose your position as easily as you attained it.  Maybe it's better to be happy with what you've got instead of pursuing fame and riches; look what happened to "poor" Rico.  All lost for the sake of ambition.  Don't be like Rico, kids.  Stay home and be good upstanding citizens.  Let Rico be a warning to you.

Actually, I may be onto something with that, all sarcasm aside.

Next week, hide your bananas and your's King Kong!

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