Little Caesar

So a few days ago I watched Little Caesar, the gangster movie that started it all, and the thing that struck me the most was how very, very gay Caesar Rico seems. I’m sure there have been a thousand film school essays written on exactly how gay he is, and whether or not he’s actually supposed to be gay, but whatever, I’m writing this thing and I want to talk about it.

First of all, let’s talk about characters and relationships. Little Caesar Rico (Edward G. Robinson) has two major relationships over the course of the movie, one with longtime pal Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), who wants to go straight and tries to pull Rico with him, and one with fellow gang member Otero (George Stone), who wants nothing more for Rico than that he make it all the way to the top of the racket. Everyone else in the movie is either an antagonist or a stooge; either somebody trying to smack Rico back down or somebody for Rico to exploit. The one exception – and the only major female character in the movie – is Olga Stassoff (Glenda Farrell), Massara’s lover and dancing partner, who doesn’t like gangsters and especially doesn’t like Rico.

Little Caesar builds parallels between the Good Partner and the Bad Partner. The Good Partner represents the conventional, the legitimate, the social; the Bad Partner the freedom and danger of antisocial individuality. Olga and Rico vie for Massara and Massara and Otero vie for Rico. Massara pulls Rico towards legitimacy and Otero pushes him further into lawlessness; Rico tries to force Massara to stay in the gang and Olga woos him into marriage, employment, conventionality – heterosexuality. As the movie views Massara as essentially lawful and Rico as essentially lawless, the choice for Massara is between homosexuality and heterosexuality instead of Rico’s more damning limited choice of homosexual partners. Rico cannot choose heterosexuality; the movie offers him no potential female partners. Rico himself is aware of this, and declares several times that “dames aren’t for me.” Even the scenes between the pairs of new lovers – Olga/Massara and Rico/Otero – are filmed in a similarly stylized way. Olga teases Massara: “Have you had a lot of steady girls before?” He responds carelessly, “Oh, sure, but what does that matter? We’re going to make this real, aren’t we?” It’s a stock scene and might have come from any other light romantic comedy; replace Douglas Fairbanks with Leslie Howard, Ralph Bellamy, or Zeppo Marx. On the other side, Rico is going up the Hill to meet “The Big Boy” and Otero is watching him get fitted for a tuxedo. “You look good, Rico, real good,” he purrs. Rico coughs and frowns then looks at himself in the mirror. “Maybe I don’t look half-bad after all,” he says. Make Rico and Otero female and you’ve got any of a dozen similar scenes in the same romantic comedies – Rico as stand-in for Sister Carrie or Scarlet O’Hara. Rico gets shot and there’s a scene with him and Otero in bed together – Rico in a bathrobe and sling and Otero fully dressed, of course – that would play nearly the same between a traditional heterosexual couple. The scene ends with a tight shot of Rico and Otero’s faces: Rico is sneering out at the camera and Otero is gazing worshipfully at Rico.

Rico’s downfall is directly due to his inability to let go of Massara. Rico reaches the top of the gangland pile and Massara tells him that he’s out, he’s through, he’s getting married to Olga and going straight as a professional dancer. Rico flares while Otero looks on: “No one ever quits me! It’s got to be me or her, and it’s not going to be me!” Later, Olga offers Massara the same choice: turn State’s Evidence and betray Rico or lose her. Massara twists and turns and eventually gives in just as Rico and Otero show up. Rico can’t bring himself to shoot Massara in spite of everything – his torment is underlined with an extreme closeup of his suffering, teary eyes – and it’s up to Otero, the new lover, to kill the old one.

Massara doesn’t die, of course, for the same reason that Otero and Rico do, later on. Little Caesar is firmly on the side of society, marriage and heterosexuality despite its fascination with the alternatives, and everyone who breaks out of those norms has to be, must be punished. The more the character refuses to knuckle under to society, the worse the punishment. Massara is shot – karmic retribution for his earlier assertion of antisocial individuality/homosexuality – but survives to get married and re-enter the society he repudiated. Rico’s old gang boss, who was against murder, gunplay, and antagonizing the police for all that he’s a gangster, gets off with a clearly pro forma jail sentence. Most tellingly, Otero dies immediately after trying to kill Massara in his role as the Good Partner. Otero is guilty of the worst sin – the active renunciation of society as represented by the affianced, testifying Massara – so his punishment is swift and severe. He is shot while fleeing with Rico from Massara’s apartment, and the lovers share one final embrace before Rico scurries into an ultimately futile obscurity/repression.

The important thing to remember about all this is that Rico’s arc is essentially that of the Girl Gone Wrong, with gunplay standing in for sex. Rico comes from a Small Town and moves to the Big City, where he is led down a glittering and decadent path that finally ends in his destruction. His advancement in the gang, trading on his willingness to use his guns (read: have sex), and his steady adoption by increasingly powerful male figures parallels that of any stock heroine of the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Of course, the question is whether or not Little Caesar was actually supposed to be gay, and it’s hard to say for certain. There’s a long tradition of homosexuality associated with gangsters and gunslingers in American fiction – see the tailors in The Public Enemy, for example, and every single one of the villains in The Maltese Falcon – and there’s plenty of evidence for the idea in Little Caesar, but there’s been enough cultural drift in the last half-century that what might have passed for purely heterosexual banter or relationships can look just the tiniest bit queer to modern eyes. I doubt that Captain Renault and Rick in Casablanca were intended to be lovers, but it’s hard to take the line “If I were a woman, I should be in love with Monsieur Rick,” and not read it in a homoerotic light; the same sort of crosscultural static surrounds Little Caesar.

–DJ Lamont Cranston


4 Responses to “Little Caesar”

  1. 1 Tony
    June 1, 2011 at 11:09 pm

    You really not proving if caesar was gay or not.. I never seen this movie with homosexual gangsters.. They were hoodlums their interest was not women for what they want to do. things then were different now like how mannerisms or way they say things.. everybody calls somebody or something homosexual these days which is childish. Ive read people evidence about if he was gay and still no evidence.. I just see a bunch of youngsters seeing every little thing is gay. I saw ortero looking at rico like a hero because that’s where he wants to be.. At the top. There’s nothing gay about it

  2. 2 Anonymous
    December 8, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    Although, anything can be massaged into a particular point of view, I don’t take issue with yours…!

  3. December 24, 2011 at 6:08 am

    Some movies are born to gayness; some movies have gayness thrust upon them.

    I’m not saying that Caesar is necessarily intended to be gay, just that his story has certain parallels with melodramatic romances, parallels that put him in competition with a woman for the affections and loyalty of a man. You could certainly watch the movie without my interpretation in mind, and your viewing of the movie would still be completely valid. I find it useful — and entertaining! — to see a failed gay love affair here, but that’s mostly subtext, not text.

  4. May 2, 2013 at 11:50 pm

    Asking questions are genuinely good thing if you are not understanding something
    fully, however this paragraph offers pleasant understanding even.

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