Child in the Hood: Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931)

[This (edited) undergraduate composition was written in 1993 for the Lehman Scholars Program (LSP) module Hollywood Myths at Lehman College, CUNY. The assignment was to write weekly essays on a series of classic Hollywood films that were screened in class. The series of essays won the Terry De Antonio Prize for Film Criticism.]

Child in the Hood: Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931)

Harry Heuser

Its datedness and Depression era context aside, Mervyn LeRoy’s archetypal gangster film Little Caesar (1930) still speaks to us with the simplicity of a fairy tale—a potent, poignant parable of childhood dreams and adult reality.  Present day viewers who dismiss the portrayal of Rico Bandello as formulaic or quaint miss out on the film’s most intriguing mythical theme, namely the nostalgic longing for childhood as conflicting with the natural processes of maturation as well as the demands that society makes on the individual.

Rico, or “Little Caesar,” is a pre-pubescent prankster trapped in an adult, ugly and overgrown frame, whose irresponsibility and display of irreverence appears to be the very perversion of childhood innocence.  The insecurity that lies at the root of his crisis is already apparent when he tells his pal Joe that he wants to “be somebody.”  Joe, by comparison, who contemplates a career as a dancer, expresses the desire to “become,” to evolve as part of an active process of education and experience.  Joe already senses that he will need help from others to achieve his clearly defined goal and is therefore on his way toward social integration.  In Rico’s case, on the other hand, due to the boy’s refusal to grow up, a persona has to serve as a substitute for personality.  Thus, “Little Caesar,” the Peter Pan of Prohibition, joins the truly Lost Boys—whose leader is appropriately named “Big Boy”—in order to avoid integration as well as the discovery of self.

Rico seems to remain on a level of psychosocial development that Erik Erikson calls “industry versus inferiority.”  According to Erikson, this last stage of childhood needs to be mastered, its conflicts resolved, before the child is able to handle further lessons of adolescence and adulthood.  Rico’s indifference to erotic encounters indicates that he somehow remains in a state of sexual latency.  He also can no longer communicate with Joe, who has matured successfully, has established an intimate relationship and continues his struggle toward self-actualization.  In comparison, “Caesar” is egocentric, unable to relate to others without verbal or physical abuse.  “You go back to that dame and it’s suicide,” he warns Joe in his desperate attempt to keep his only friendship alive.  Rejecting any kind of hierarchy, “Caesar” has to leave the room when discussions with his “boys” demand social skills of diplomacy or compromise.  

The “emperor,” trying to eliminate whoever is questioning or endangering his position, is almost killed while showing off his new clothes in public.  Furthermore, when his iron mask finally begins to show signs of corroboration, the filius nullius has to depend on his ersatz-mother, Ma Magdalena, who hides him from the police.

Without positive social interactions or personal achievements, Rico cannot manage to overcome his feelings of inferiority.  He is still “nobody,” a nonentity in new attire, a cross section of the Underworld who chooses mere mimicry over individuality.  In the end, his lack of identity makes it impossible for him to resist the final showdown, which seems to him an opportunity to re-establish his Gangster image.  His dying words, as he crouches like a trapped rodent in a dark alley—”Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?”—are uttered in disbelief and shame.  Stripped of his persona and unable to discover a complex self underneath, he ceases living.  Unlike Capra, in whose films childhood is a state of innocence to aspire to in adult life, Little Caesar urges us to take pity in—but not to follow the example of—those who turn adult life into a state of Peter Pan-demonium.

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