Edward G. Robinson - The Unlikely Star
Edward G. Robinson in the early 1930's.
In the pre-Code era audiences loved personality types we would now call character actors. In the early 1930s, actors with world-weary, hang-dog faces like Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery endeared themselves to audiences who saw them as one of their own and rewarded them with stardom. In a different decade, Edward G. Robinson’s career might not have flourished, but this was the year of the gangster, and Robinson would be its breakout star.
Short, stocky, and not very good looking, he was born Emmanuel Goldenberg in Bucharest, Romania, in 1893 and grew up in New York’s Lower East Side. He was awarded a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and, after graduation, went to casting calls and told agents, “I’m not much on face value, but when it comes to stage value, I’ll deliver.” Robinson became a successful Broadway actor and ultimately a star in the 1927 play, The Racket, in which he played a gangster. But in real life he was a sensitive pacifist who collected art, and, as a boy, considered becoming a Rabbi.
His first notable gangster screen role as Dominic in The Widow From Chicago, 1930. With Neil Hamilton and Alice White.
In 1930 (the first year of the Depression), MGM offered him a three movie, million-dollar contract, with one catch. They wanted a full-time commitment, and Robinson wanted four months a year to do theater. With the studio and the actor at an impasse, the deal was dead in the water. Robinson sat in his car afterward and threw up thinking about the million dollars he just passed on. However, losing the contract with MGM freed him to sign with Warner Brothers — a studio ultimately able to give him the right parts. In turn, he helped shape that studio’s brand as urban, snappy, and hard-hitting.
A rocket to stardom in Little Caesar, 1931.
In January 1931, as gangster movies exploded in popularity, audiences lined up for blocks to see Robinson star in Little Caesar. The film traces Robinson’s character, Rico, from small-time criminal to the second biggest crime boss in a big town. He’s almost at the top, but he blows it when he finds “the top” empty without his best friend and right-hand man, Joe. Although Robinson plays Rico with anger, fearlessness, and, most importantly, composure, he also has very human weaknesses. Interestingly the book was a critique of capitalism gone wrong, while the film emphasizes the “incompleteness of a successful capitalist.”
Smart Money with James Cagney in 1931.
This new trend of gangster films was less about financial problems from the Depression and more about the social and moral issues it caused. Prohibition and its unpopular sentiment created an environment where the gangster became a complex character that could be sympathetic. Robinson continuously played outsiders who longed for status and financial comfort. While many actors who played gangsters found themselves typecast, Robinson was the rare actor who, even in his gangster heyday, got to play a variety of parts — often sensitive men who longed for love.
With Joan Blondell in Bullets Or Ballots, 1936.
Pre-Code movies tackled another taboo — male fragility. Robinson played good men who wound up getting their hearts ripped out by bad women. In Two Seconds, he plays a modest working-class guy who meets a taxi dancer while out with a co-worker at a club. He’s bashful and sweet, and the girl (Shirley) sees him as a sap she can drain dry. He takes Shirley on a date, gets drunk, and wakes up married to her. His friends warn him she’s the worst kind of bad news, but he defends her. When Robinson finds out she’s got another man, he begins to unravel. His misery, humiliation, and pain are agonizingly peeled from his soul. It’s raw and uncomfortable to watch, but it’s also a mesmerizing performance.
Two Seconds, 1932 directed by Mervyn LeRoy.
Male fragility on full display in Two Seconds, 1932.
The masculinity of the ’40s and ’50s showed men swallowing their anger with a strong drink and exploding with rage, but rarely hints at the depths of vulnerability Robinson plumbed. Author Mick LaSalle wrote, “He played romantics — middle-aged men who were often lovelorn, openhearted, and either awkward or openly giving with women. He was the only tough guy to make an air of gullibility an element of his screen personality. The Robinson hero could see through his adversaries but was helpless before his friends and loved ones.” No doubt his success paved the way for actors like Ernest Borgnine.
In Scarlet Street, 1945, with femme fatale Joan Bennett. Directed by Fritz Lang, Scarlet Street is as brilliant as it is dark and nihilistic.
With Humphrey Bogart in Brother Orchid, 1940.
Robinson enjoyed a long, varied career after the Code was enforced in movies like Scarlett Street, Double Indemnity, and The Ten Commandments. His last film was the sci-fi classic, Soylent Green, released in 1973 — the year he died.
Chazz Palminteri on Edward G. Robinson for TCM.