What does a bootlegger do when Prohibition ends? In Roy Del Ruth’s The Little Giant (1933), he tries his hand at becoming a member of High Society.
Edward G. Robinson is J. Francis “Bugs” Ahearn, a Chicago gangster who, when not busy bootlegging, tries to better himself by reading books and buying art (a scene early in the film in which he tries to explain to two of his cohorts the meaning of an abstract painting is particularly fun knowing that Robinson became a huge art collector in real life). When it’s announced that Prohibition is being repealed, Bugs and his right hand man, Albert J. “Al” Daniels (Russell Hopton), head out west to Santa Barbara where Bugs rents a large mansion (20 rooms, 14 bathrooms with tennis courts) from an estate agent, Ruth Wayburn (Mary Astor) who he hires to help him adapt to his new surroundings. Ruth is actually the owner of the house who has fallen on hard times, a fact she keeps secret from Bugs.
Soon Bugs is attending polo matches and dressing up in tuxedos for dinner. He falls for a blonde socialite Polly Cass (Helen Vinson) and becomes eager to ingratiate himself with her family. Little does he know that they’re just a bunch of swindlers interested in his money; before long he’s buying polo ponies from the son, an expensive ring for Polly, and the family’s worthless investment firm that’s been selling phony bonds. Once he learns the truth from Ruth, who’s fallen for Bugs, he sets out to make things right and calls in some friends to help refinance the bonds, “the Chicago way.” The film ends with a happy Bugs, back to being his old self and together with the woman he really loves.
Mary Astor and Edward G. Robinson in The Little Giant
After making a name for himself playing bad guys, The Little Giant marked Robinson’s first foray into comedy, and he rises to the occasion. There is a genuine sweetness to his portrayal of Bugs, a man who just wants to fit in. He also displays strong comedic timing and does a great send up of his gangster persona. Hopton is a competent sidekick, Vinson is a good femme fatale, and Astor is likable as Ruth, not yet exhibiting the icy exterior that seems to coat her later performances.
Most of the comedy in the film is drawn from Robinson and Hopton’s bulls in a china shop situations. At a restaurant where the menu is in French, Bugs orders with a horrendous accent. “When’d you learn to talk this monkey jabber?” asks Al. “Oh, I used to own 10 percent of a French dame.” When Ruth points out a statue and tells him “that’s a famous Siamese beauty,” Bugs responds, “Where’s the other one? I always thought they was twins.” The film also has a “polo” scene near the end that’s wacky and hilarious (think polo, gangster-style).
This being a pre-code film it also has its fair share of risqué scenes for its time. In one scene, Polly and Bugs are sitting on a bench when she leans back, thrusting up her chest, and asks if he likes her perfume. He leans right in and takes a deep sniff. And when Bugs asks Al if he’s ever seen anything like the painting mentioned earlier he responds, "Not since I've been off cocaine."
If you’ve never seen Robinson do comedy, watch The Little Giant. And even if you have, check it out anyways.