Edward G. Robinson
Edward G. Robinson was born in Bucharest, Romania on December 12, 1893. Though he’d begun his Hollywood acting career years earlier (first appearing onscreen during the silent era), it was director Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931) that made him a star. Playing the title role of a diminutive gangster that wanted to be a big shot, Robinson gave his character Enrico Bandello an energy akin to James Cagney’s portrayal of Tom Powers in William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931), released later that same year. Robinson’s bad guy is #38 on the American Film Institute’s top 50 villains list and his iconic ending line "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?" is #73 on the AFI's 100 greatest movie quotes list. But while Cagney quickly capitalized on his success and stayed in leading roles throughout his career until (quite literally) the very end, Robinson toiled a while longer and struggled to break free from his tough guy typecasting before morphing into a character actor extraordinaire. Though they each appeared in features with the other member of the Warner Bros.’s 1930's racketeer triumvirate - Humphrey Bogart, the only film in which Robinson and Cagney appeared together was Smart Money (1931). After making Smart Money (1931), Robinson worked again with director LeRoy in the Academy Award Best Picture nominee Five Star Final (1931) which was remade five years later with Bogart as the B programmer Two Against the World (1936), but is found on TCM’s schedule as One Fatal Hour (1936). Robinson plays a news editor that had worked hard to clean up his paper’s sleazy reputation before his bosses persuaded him to run a "what ever happened to" feature about a paroled murderess. It’s learned that she’d remarried and was living a quiet decent life - her daughter about to marry the son of wealthy parents - until the story runs, creating a scandal that leads to tragedy. Robinson’s character expresses guilt for what happens and rails at his callous bosses for their lack of shame, an emotion that seems as foreign to them as it must to today’s media editors, who would be sure to get every teardrop shed by the victims on the 6 o’clock news.
After a string of several unremarkable films except for John Ford’s crime comedy The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) and director Michael Curtiz’s boxing drama Kid Galahad (1937) with Bette Davis, Bogart and Wayne Morris (among others), Robinson emerged in a Wellman-Robert Carson story that was adapted by John Lee Mahin called The Last Gangster (1937), which provides a bookend of sorts to Little Caesar (1931) - "what if Rico had gone to jail". The actor plays a convicted gang leader that returns from serving 10 years in the Rock (Alcatraz prison) for tax evasion to find that times have changed: his mob no longer fears nor respects him and only wants the location of his hidden stash, and his previously clueless foreigner wife now knows about his sordid past and has remarried a reporter (James Stewart!) that the gangster’s son believes is his father. The plot becomes a role reversed version of Mahin’s Oscar nominated Captains Courageous (1937), with the adult (Robinson’s character) coming of age because of the example set by his boy. Robinson then spoofed the mobster screen persona he wished to escape by playing a stereotypical "crime boss that yearns to go legit" (only to find how difficult that is to do) in two of the three comedies he did with director Lloyd Bacon: A Slight Case of Murder (1938) and Brother Orchid (1940). In the third - Larceny, Inc. (1942) - Jane Wyman plays Robinson’s surrogate daughter that wants him to find a legitimate enterprise in lieu of returning to a life of crime, so he and his cronies (Broderick Crawford and Edward Brophy) buy a luggage business that they pretend to run while attempting to tunnel from its basement into the vault of the bank next door. Jack Carson, Anthony Quinn, and several of Warner Bros.’ familiar character actors play roles in this one.
During the 1930's, Robinson was established as one of the screen’s toughest mob leaders. But as the decade waned and gangster films faded, new kinds of crime dramas with more domestic villains emerged. Switched from one side of the law to the other, Robinson was further transformed from leading to character actor. In the late 30's while nearing 45 years of age, the actor began to play investigators in pursuit of information and/or criminals that eluded justice. He continued to give memorable (primarily) supporting performances through his last role as Sol Roth in the sci-fi thriller Soylent Green (1973), shortly before he died.
After Robinson made the first of three crime comedies directed by Lloyd Bacon, he played the title role in Anatole Litvak’s The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938), a learned man that is so interested in understanding the physiology and psychology of criminals that he becomes one himself in order to conduct his research. Claire Trevor and Humphrey Bogart also appear in this story co-written by John Huston, who directed his first film starring Bogart three years later (The Maltese Falcon (1941)). Dr. Clitterhouse would be the first in a series of investigative roles that the actor played which culminated in two of Robinson’s best character actor performances: as Barton Keyes - the insurance analyst that gets to the bottom of the murder conspiracy in Billy Wilder’s film noir classic Double Indemnity (1944) - and as the persistent Nazi hunter Mr. Wilson in Orson Welles’s The Stranger (1946). He’d also played similar roles in Litvak’s docudrama Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) and Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940) - directed by William Dieterle and also co-written by Huston, which recalls Paul Muni’s titled performance in Dieterle’s The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936). I grew up watching Peter Falk play Columbo on television and, after subsequently seeing these movies, I’ve thought that he must have been a fan of Robinson’s per the style (if not all the mannerisms) that he gave that TV character. During this same time period, Robinson delivered his most brutal and sadistic performance (despite all the years he played gangsters!), and his portrayal of Wolf Larsen in the Michael Curtiz-Robert Rossen version of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf (1941) is also one of the actor’s most complex villain parts. Even while maniacally abusing his crew towards mutiny, Captain Larsen impresses his would-be biographer (Alexander Knox) with his knowledge of literature. Robinson battles John Garfield, who wishes to save Ida Lupino from the kind of cruel treatment that the captain inflicts on his Ghost ship’s doctor (Gene Lockhart), snitch (Barry Fitzgerald), and the others. But my favorite Robinson leading role is Martinius Jacobson, the kind sensitive wise father of Margaret O’Brien and husband to an atypically sympathetic Agnes Moorehead in the relatively unknown family drama Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945). It’s a nostalgic story about farming life in a Wisconsin immigrant community during World War II, filled with touching, heartwarming scenes in which O’Brien evokes as many sentimental tears as her character sheds.
Robinson then returned to the gangster genre as mob boss Johnny Rocco in John Huston’s Key Largo (1948), which the director adapted with Richard Brooks from Maxwell Anderson’s play, opposite a now top-billed Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor, and Thomas Gomez (among others). While holding out in a hotel on the remote titled island during a hurricane, Robinson and his gang (incl. Gomez) terrorize the proprietor (Barrymore) and his daughter (Bacall) while Bogart tries to decide whether to get involved or not. No one in the establishment escapes Rocco’s ridicule including his own moll (Trevor, who earned her best supporting actress Oscar). Ironically, Bogart would play a criminal hiding out with his gang - in a suburban home terrorizing a father (Fredric March)-daughter (Mary Murphy) and the rest of the family - in one of his last films The Desperate Hours (1955). Robinson played other leading roles: in the drama All My Sons (1948) based on Arthur Miller’s play about a factory owner that’s finally forced to face his malfeasance during WW II by his son (Burt Lancaster) and a neighbor’s (Howard Duff), and as a resourceful police captain in Vice Squad (1953) - but was more often found in supporting parts in the 1950's and 1960's. Still a powerful presence, he sticks out like a sore thumb in Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The Ten Commandments (1956), and it was three years before he next appeared onscreen - as ne’er do well Frank Sinatra’s meddling father, and Thelma Ritter’s husband - in Frank Capra’s comedy A Hole in the Head (1959).
Though Robinson never produced nor directed a film, he played both roles onscreen. First, he appeared as himself playing a Hollywood producer in Pepe (1960), a role that was integral to the comedy musical, and played a fictional world renown director in the John Houseman produced, Vincente Minnelli directed, Charles Schnee adaptation of the Irwin Shaw novel Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). In the latter behind the scenes of movie-making drama, Kirk Douglas plays a seemingly washed up actor that returns to help Robinson’s character finish a picture in Italy. A recovering mental patient, Douglas must confront demons from his past including a relationship with Cyd Charisse, has to take over the reins from Robinson (Trevor plays his wife in this one) whose health is failing, and ends up mentoring a protege (George Hamilton) with whom he competes for a young actress’s (Daliah Lavi) attentions. Robinson returned to the role of a scientist, appearing as a physicist that won the Nobel Prize in screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s rip-off (of his own earlier work with Alfred Hitchcock, North By Northwest (1959)) thriller The Prize (1963), with Paul Newman and Elke Sommer. Diane Baker plays Robinson’s niece, who’s involved in a plot that Newman’s character uncovers before the awards ceremony in Stockholm, and I’d hate to give any more of it away if you haven’t seen it. Before he appeared in a number of foreign films, Robinson gave a most vivid portrait of a wise career gambler, playing the aging legend-poker champion Lancey Howard, in director Norman Jewison’s drama The Cincinnati Kid (1965) opposite Steve McQueen’s (title character) up-and-coming challenger Eric Stoner. The film features many rich and credible characterizations by its cast that includes Ann-Margret, Karl Malden, Tuesday Weld, Joan Blondell, Rip Torn, Jack Weston, and Cab Calloway (among others).
Before he died nearly a year shy of his 80th birthday on January 26, 1973, Robinson was voted an Honorary Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which was trying to fix their decades long gaffe - he had never received an Oscar nomination despite countless great leading and supporting movie role performances. The award was posthumously accepted by his widow Jane. The actor did receive a Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 1970 and he has a Star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame.
© 2007 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog