Monday August 09, 2021
Movie Review: The Little Giant (1933)
It’s basically a one-joke movie, isn’t it? An Al Capone-type Chicago gangster, J. Francis “Bugs” Ahearn (Edward G. Robinson), sees the writing on the wall when FDR is elected and Prohibition is about to end, and decides to go legit. So with his ill-gotten gains ($1.25 million), and his right-hand man, Al (Russell Hopton), he moves to Santa Barbara and tries to enter high society. “I’m gonna mingle with the upper classes,” he says. “I’m gonna be a gentleman!”
The joke is he thinks the upper classes have class but they don’t. In fact, the very rich are bigger crooks than he is, and take him for a yap, a chump, a sucker. This goes on for 60 minutes of a 75-minute movie. It’s only at the end that he wises up, gets the gang back together, and makes the rich and corrupt pay. That’s the fun part.
Man, if only he were around today. Send him over to Mar-a-Lago.
Anyway, the one joke isn’t good enough. Much of the movie is a slog. It’s just an hour-plus, but it took me several sittings to get through. “Bugs” makes typical working-class errors: says “Pluto” for “Plato,” assumes a “Siamese beauty” has a twin. Robinson’s good—he’s always good—but most of the lines (from the otherwise reliable Robert Lord-Wilson Mizer team) don’t stick. The dame he falls for, Polly Cass (Helen Vinson), is a leech, and so is her entire family. They’re only interested in him when they find out he’s got money; then they’re scared when they find out he’s that Ahearn—Ahearn is the wrong name for a gangster anyway—but still, for a time, they get the better of him. And sorry to be crass, but for Bugs to fall so hard for so long, the actress playing Polly should’ve been a stunner. Vinson’s fine but not a stunner.
Mary Astor plays Ruth, the stolid working woman who rents him his mansion. Turns out, it used to be her family’s until the Casses bilked her father for his fortune—sending him to an early death. That shift in focus is disappointing as well. Initially, all of high society seem suspect; by the end, it’s just the Casses. Ruth sees them as aberrations rather than as representative. The rich get off the hook again.
I do like an early “Public Enemy” reference, as Al and Bugs reminisce about the old days:
Al: Remember all the good times we had together? Remember the time we busted into that loft after them furs?
Bugs: Yeah, and you went into a panic over that big stuffed polar bear in the corner.
Al: I give it to him, didn’t I?
Bugs: Yeah, you sure opened up on him. The cops on the west side was swarming around that joint like they was bees around a hive!
It’s almost like the Warners Studio reminiscing about the glorious pre-code era as it was coming to an end.