- Historic Sites
The Warner Mob
With the Depression pushing the studio toward bankruptcy, Warner Brothers had to resort to crime—and crime paid so well that the company was able to recruit the toughest guys that ever shot up a sound stage.
December 1983 | Volume 35, Issue 1
The Warner Mob brought a new side of the American character to film, with a claim to realism that earned Warner’s the reputation of being the “workingman’s studio.” They were all “tough guys,” but each projected a different city type: Robinson was “Mr. Big”; Cagney, the cocky go-getter; Garfield, the born loser; and Bogart, until he became a romantic hero in the 1940s, the cold-blooded killer. Together with George Raft, and the supporting actors Barton MacLane and Alien Jenkins, they became America’s most wanted criminals. Warner’s called them “Murderer’s Row.”
These practitioners of menace were not yet a gang in 1931, but Little Caesar’s critical success had already bolstered the image of Warner Brothers, and Zanuck was now thought nothing less than clairvoyant in predicting public taste. Although Zanuck himself thought privately that the gangster film had probably run its course with Little Caesar, the film’s commercial success made it inevitable that the studio would produce more tough, urban melodramas. For the next decade Warner Brothers, which proudly publicized the gun and explosion experts they had permanently on staff—Jack Warner boasted that even the U.S. Army came to him for advice—would be synonymous with gangster movies.
But the life most changed by Little Caesar was, of course, Robinson’s. Instant celebrity and star status did much to soften the actor’s contempt for the bastard art form practiced on the West Coast. His seventeen years on the Broadway stage had, after all, included a fair share of flops and the pain of missing out on roles because of his squat, five-foot-five frame. His set speech to producers in those early years was, “I know I’m not much on face value, but when it comes to stage value, I’ll deliver for you.” Now there was no need to apologize. Emanuel Goldenberg, the son of impoverished Rumanian Jews, had become Edward G. Robinson, movie star.
In years to come Robinson would bemoan his public identification with Little Caesar. Upset at being typecast, he kept badgering Jack Warner for more prestigious roles. But even on the rare occasion when Robinson-was allowed to play a historical figure like Dr. Paul Ehrlich, in Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, the studio was careful to select a title with bullet in it to remind everyone of the actor’s more famous—and more profitable—identity. Like it or not, he would be acting variations on Little Caesar well into the 1950s. Even after his death in 1973, nightclub comics would continue to do their Robinson/Caesar impersonations.
As Cagney recalled it, “Sinner’s Holiday, which was my first film, was originally a play that lasted only five weeks. Al Jolson bought it on spec and sold it to Warner Brothers and they shipped the body with it.”
Cagney’s performance was singled out by The New York Times as the most impressive acting in the film. His contract was extended to include Doorway to Hell, in which he played sidekick to the miscast Lew Ayres’s Chicago mobster. His work here caught the attention of the director Lewis Milestone, who wanted him for the role of Hildy Johnson in The Front Page, but Howard Hughes, the producer, dismissed him as a “little runt.” Pat O’Brien, Cagney’s buddy and future costar in eight films, got to play Hildy, leaving Cagney free for the role of Tom Powers in The Public Enemy.
Years later the film’s director, William Wellman, remembered how Cagney unintentionally usurped that role: “We hire a guy named Eddie Woods to play the lead. We get a relatively unknown guy named Jimmy Cagney who has a tough little way, and he is playing the second part. … When I looked at the rushes, I said [to Zanuck], ‘Look, there is a horrible mistake. We have the wrong guy in here. Cagney should be the lead.’ Zanuck said, ‘Well, you know who Eddie Woods is, don’t you?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t. Who is he?’ ‘He’s engaged to marry Louella Parsons’ daughter.’ I said, ‘Well, for Christ’s sake, are you going to let some newspaperwoman run your business?’ He said, ‘Change them.’”