The greatest of Jewish movie gangsters (although he was cast instead as Italian, Greek, Portuguese, or Chinese),
Edward G. Robinson, né Emanuel Goldenberg, was born in Bucharest, raised on the Lower East Side, and educated at City College. By Hollywood standards, he was never young. Short, squat Robinson was an elderly 37 when he left Broadway to play the snarling antihero of Little Caesar, the gangster smash of 1931 that made him the hottest player on the Warners lot.
Robinson invented the megalomaniacal mobster
persona he would refine (and satirize) throughout the ’30s. He was an icon, and this 27-feature tribute is generously salted with the Warners cartoons that
parodied their star. Robinson’s thick, squashed features were designed to be capped by a
tilted fedora; his mask-of-tragedy scowl was meant to be wrapped around an unlit stogie; his voice was made for snarling into a telephone. But Robinson was also among the most
intelligent of actors. His
performance as the hard-boiled tabloid editor in Five Star Final (1931) is a remarkable construction of cynicism and
self-loathing. And there was no one else at Warners who could have managed the same
mixture of braininess, malevolence, and insanity that he brought to The Sea Wolf (1941).
Although Robinson continued to play gangsters as late as Black Tuesday (1954), his image softened in the 1940s, with the troubled clerks of Double Indemnity (1944) and the two Fritz Lang films, Woman in the Window (1945) and Scarlet Street (1946). Meanwhile, as a prominent
New Deal liberal and an active
antifascist, he took another sort of beating. Robinson’s
career stalled for the first half of the ’50s after he was listed in Red Channels. Never nominated for an Oscar, he received one posthumously.