The Little Giant (1933)

The Little Giant (1933) is a Pre-code proto-noir gangster-comedy romance story starring Edward G. Robinson and Mary Astor.

The comedy is given legs by a real life conundrum in the form of the question regarding what bootleggers and racketeers can now do, since Prohibition has ended and they are now in competition with the government for the production and distribution of liquor.

Bugs Alhern ― Edward G. Robinson ― is comically ahead of the game ―and his plan is to take his millions to Santa Barbara and start living the life of a socialite, living swell with the swanks, and appreciating culture ― usually expressed in this caper through the medium of polo.

Bugs however makes a fist of his sartorial efforts to prove himself high class ― references to the Greek philosopher 'Pluto' maybe being enough to give the idea.

While not containing any content that might immediately pre-figure the themes, scenes and characters of film noir, The Little Giant does show within its comedy a thoroughly corrupt California family, who are in a twist of expectation undone by the real criminal gang.

That gang of hoods and mooks are well characterised and even better filmed. Even though The Little Giant (1933) is a comedy, the following hoods could well have served as amoral and unrepentant thugs in any 1940s noir feature. Beautifully shot, and in a film noir sensibility:

Edward G. Robinson would on more than one occasion channel his gangster image into comedy roles although The Little Giant is the first time he did this. 

The gag is that wanting a little class for his money and seeking to mix with the upper crust he moves to California and starts working the room.

The high life in The Little Giant (1933)

The era of Prohibition in the Unites States lasted thirteen years, from 1920 until 1933, and at around the turn of the decade, in 1930, the movies were showing a lot of drinking going on and showing a lot the crime that went on around it too. 

Films indeed tended to present drinking as cosmopolitan, and a part of an affluent lifestyle and in reaction to the values and restrictions of the Production Code, filmmakers increasingly showed alcohol with a self-conscious joy, as well as a certain symbolism, which was simply inherent in the illicit nature of the practice. 
Shirley Grey in The Little Giant (1933)

The Little Giant deals with an extremely relevant current issue, being the repealing of Prohibition, allowing comedy to make its point. By the late 1920s, alcohol had become a more symbolic arena for a conflict within middle-class America, between an older generation committed to values perhaps redolent of the previous century, and a younger generation experimenting with new lifestyles and gender roles.

Prohibition in fact came to render drinking as the perfect symbol of generational revolt, and in the eyes of temperance campaigners, by 1928 there was what some saw as a college drinking epidemic. In terms of drinking as a class issue, the effective raising of the price of alcohol and of course it often being now made in its mode concentrated form, working-class drinking was more limited than that of other social groups.

The upper class people shown in The Little Giant would have comprised a class that Prohibition had little effected 

Russell Hopton in The Little Giant (1933)

By the early 1930s, content analyses of movies showed that the films were more full of alcohol, and sympathetic to it than any other media.

A study of 115 films released in 1929-1931 found that 43% of them showed intoxication, 66% showed drinking, and less than 10% had no reference to or display of liquor. 

Worse still, the references to alcohol in the movies were largely favourable. Around three-quarters of the films showing intoxication treated it as humorous — and while 43% of the male protagonists and 23% of the female heroes were shown drinking, only 13% of the bad guys and 8% of the bad women portrayed were seen to drink (Dale, 1935, pp. 168-9). Another study of 33 movies released in 1932 found that drinking was shown over 3 times as often with approval or tolerance as with disapproval -- and that in 40% of the approving instances this included approval of women drinking. (See Dale, Edgar
1935 The Content of Motion Pictures, New York, Macmillan.

Edward G. Robinson in The Little Giant (1933)

Drinking in movies has always carried symbolism, and still does. This was however most potent at the dawn of the Golden Age and in the Pre-Code days.

It is true that drinking and drunkenness could carry the traditional implications of moral dissolution or failure, or despair. But the positive associations were many — glasses of champagne set the tone for luxuriance and success, and in the hands of younger characters and women, alcohol was a part of the tone of liberation from older values — a matrix of imagery also complemented by jazz, close dancing, and women's cigarette smoking.

The sight of  young women drinking was an especially strong symbol since it shipped with the an implication of sexual availability. "Lunch is poured", someone shouts to the prep-school girls on the train at the start of Our Modern Maidens (1929), after they have made all expressed their joyful feelings on the subjects of "love, beautiful love" and "men", before they dash through the carriages of the train to an impromptu mixed-sex party with the drinks in paper cups.

Compare this to a character like Roy Earle in High Sierra (1941), who like many of the villains of classic film noir, did not drink at all. Bogart, when hiding out in the mountains, does not drink and the film's main drinking scene leaves him feeling disgust. 

When he comes to see a young woman in whom he was romantically interested walk after he has paid for an operation to heal her, he finds her dancing to a phonograph with some friends, as well as drinking, and again we feel his intense disgust at the prospect.

Edward G. Robinson and Mary Astor in The Little Giant (1933)

Mary Astor in The Little Giant (1933)

By the time The Little Giant came to be made, the fun and ubiquity of the drinking in movies seem to wane. Of course this was due to the repeal of Prohibition, meaning law-abiding audiences had no need to confine themselves to the pornography of alcohol by watching others drinking in the films. 

But it may also have been be that audiences had become a little tired of the idea and in fact when it came to living in the nether prions of the Depression, drinking certainly lost some of its symbolic power. 

Bugs Aherne however makes one last hurrah, a criminal success, and another villain good-guy — ambiguous to say the least in terms of the Code. A criminal of course for running alcohol, and managing a fairly violent gang — we see them torturing someone later by burning the target's feet — all in comic form. And yet Bugs is the unequivocal good guy in The Little Giant (1933), whose worst crime is naivety and how uncovers and punishes some upper class criminals, who are defrauding and lying their way through smart society.

Unfortunately Bugs mixes with this family of society crooks father Berton Churchill, mother Louise Mackintosh, son Donald Dillaway — because he falls for Helen Vinson playing one of her famous bad girl roles. How could he resist?

Helen Vinson and the seduction of a sap in The Little Giant (1933)

To sweeten the nut, Robinson has rented a mansion from down on her luck society girl Mary Astor who along with thousands of others had her savings wiped out by investing in the junk bonds that Churchill's firm sold. And now he's sold the firm to Robinson.

The high life of the wild early 1930s in The Little Giant (1933)

No one makes a sucker out of Bugs Alhern though, and he settles the matter with some friends imported from back east who do it Chicago style. 

The real Bugs Moran would never have been this gentle as Robinson's old beer salesmen were in The Little Giant ― but Robinson gets deserved kudos for turning to comedy and he would do it many times in his career. You have to see how he and his friends play polo Chicago style. It's cartoonish and crude, and as wacky and lightning daft as the rest of the feature.

Edward G. Robinson and Mary Astor in The Little Giant (1933)

Although the initial sound era presented problems with stationary camera shots with the actors nailed to their marks, and minimal use of background music resulting in long stretches of dullness, by 1931 most of this had been fixed.

Sadistic Pre-Code foot torture in The Little Giant (1933)
Looks like Charles McGraw on the right?

It means the classic pre-censorship period of  1931 - 1934 is replete of some of the most creative, dynamic and satisfying movies of Hollywood's Golden Age. It's a lightning-paced gangster comedy from the Warner-First National studio where speed and economy were production hallmarks and it's fast, funny and flippant in a way that the worried aesthetes of the Hays Office would make virtually impossible after 1934. 

Gang justice for the corrupted wealthy in The Little Giant (1933)

“I’m all washed up with mugs. I know, I came from the gutter, but I’m stepping right out of it. I’m going to meet some real people. Do something worthwhile. Amount to something!”

As The Little Giant is a Pre-Code Movie it's worth checking on on the remarkable few quirks which identify it as such. A prime example might be when Bugs asks Al what he thinks of a futurist work of art he's just bought.

“Have you ever seen anything like that before?” Bugs asks.

“Not since I’ve been off cocaine,” Al replies.

Not with many elements that later and within one decade morph into hard hittin' code-bitten noir, The Little Giant is a charmer, a sweet movie, touching, romantic and comic all at the one time. 

Low class hoods in capersome Polo game in The Little Giant (1933)

As a high society naif, Edward G. Robinson is great, showing the all-star skills that were to make him one of the greatest of all time.

The Little Giant (1933) at Wikipedia


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