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Robinson, Edward G. (1893-1973)

Robinson, Edward G. (1893-1973)

Actor Edward G. Robinson remains inextricably linked with the establishment, in the early 1930s, of a new, popular and influential genre in the cinema: the Warner Bros. gangster movie. The films reflected an era overshadowed by the Depression, Prohibition, and the reign of notorious Chicago mobster Al Capone, expanded into hard-hitting social-conscience dramas, and progressed to film noir in the 1940s with Humphrey Bogart at the center of the Warner contribution. This significant strand in film history dates from Little Caesar (1931), which enhanced the reputation of Warner Bros., unleashed a torrent of similar films, established the producer credentials of Darryl F. Zanuck and Hal Wallis and the reputation of director Mervyn LeRoy—and made Edward G. Robinson into a huge star.

Robinson was a man of many contradictions. Despite his world-famous screen image as a crude gangster, in the course of his career he demonstrated his artistry and versatility many times over, segueing from mobsters to blue collar workers, business men, and detectives. Off-screen he was a highly cultured man who, over the course of a lifetime, managed to amass two art collections of museum quality. He was a man of the theater who reluctantly turned to movies when the Depression hit, became an instant sensation as Little Caesar, and settled into a long and successful career, but claimed never to enjoy the piece-meal process of filming. Despite his stardom, he avoided the trappings of celebrity yet, like many prominent Hollywood citizens of liberal bent, he ran afoul of the House Committee on Un-American Activities—a misfortune that he met by returning triumphantly to the stage. His last years were spent as one of cinema's elder statesmen, gracing films from science fiction to melodrama with his innate dignity and now-vintage craft.

Born in Bucharest in 1893, Emanuel Goldenberg arrived with his Rumanian Jewish family in the United States at the age of nine. The child was fluent in six languages, none of them English, but he quickly picked up the language from his young classmates, and from the Shakespearean actors whose performances thrilled him from his vantage point in the top balcony. The youth turned to political speech making, which in turn led to school plays and the choice of a theatrical career. It was while training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts that Emanuel became Edward G. Robinson. His short stature and thick features gave him no hope of ever becoming a leading man, but he was determined to make good as an actor and, after a stint in the Navy during World War I that interrupted his progress, he returned to make a career on the New York stage, appearing in some 40 plays.

Robinson appeared in his first film, The Bright Shawl, in 1923, and did not make another until The Hole in the Wall (1929). He went to Hollywood to play a gangster in A Lady to Love (1930), based on Sidney Howard's play They Knew What They Wanted, and made four more films that year, including The Widow from Chicago in which he played a Prohibition beer racketeer. It was his first film for Warner Bros., who went on to cast him in the title role in the film version of W.R. Burnett's gangster novel, Little Caesar (inspired by the career of Al Capone). In Mervyn LeRoy's fast-moving film the stocky, diminutive New York actor electrified audiences, whether sneering, shooting, or uttering one of cinema's most well-remembered curtain lines: "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?" For years thereafter, all a comedian had to do was clench an imaginary cigar and sneer, "Nyah," for the audience to recognize his impression of Robinson's iconic mobster. Well into the 1940s and 1950s, comics and animated cartoons were caricaturing Robinson's "Rico" face and mannerisms. (Late in his life, Robinson himself jokingly closed off a TV commercial by imitating that famous "Nyah.")

Throughout the 1930s, Robinson, along with Cagney and Bogart, made up a triumvirate of Warner Bros.' pre-eminent tough guys. However, not content to become stereotyped, he broke out of the mold as often as he could, going so far as to satirize himself as half of the double role in John Ford's The Whole Town's Talking (1935), playing a milquetoast office clerk mistaken for a public enemy. He was a fight manager in Michael Curtiz's Kid Galahad (1938), the chief investigating G-man in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), and discovered the cure for syphilis in the biopic Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940), his personal favorite. During and after the war, Robinson excelled at portraying both the lighter and darker facets of the American businessman, from the insurance investigator in Billy Wilder's classic, Double Indemnity (1944), to the war profiteer getting his comeuppance in All My Sons (1948), from Arthur Miller's somber play. In two classic Fritz Lang noirs, The Woman in the Window (1945) and Scarlet Street (1946), Robinson personified to perfection the mild-mannered Everyman caught in a grim web of fate.

The McCarthy era could well have seemed to Robinson a real-life evocation of Lang's dark vision. Never openly accused of disloyalty, yet unable to find work, Robinson made no less than four humiliating appearances at HUAC before his career could resume in full. Ironically, the lack of Hollywood opportunities drove Robinson into a triumphant return to stage acting in Arthur Koestler's anti-Communist drama Darkness at Noon (1951). He was forced back into gangster mode in a handful of second-league films, but the year 1956 saw him in the starry line-up of DeMille's remake of The Ten Commandments and marked his successful Broadway starring role in Paddy Chayefsky's Middle of the Night. But 1956 was unfortunately also the year of Robinson's divorce, after nearly three decades of marriage, from Gladys Lloyd, the terms of which forced the actor (and amateur painter) to sell off his precious art collection.

Eventually, Edward G. Robinson amassed a second art collection equally as distinguished as his first, and enjoyed a second marriage with Jane Adler. In 1973, the 80-year-old veteran filmed his last ever scene, a death scene in Soylent Green (1973), in which Sol, an old man, submits himself to euthanasia while bidding farewell to images of a beautiful world. Within a few months, Robinson, the revered artistic tough guy, was dead of cancer. In his last days, he had been informed that he would be receiving an honorary Academy Award—his first. Jane, his widow, accepted it for him.

—Preston Neal Jones

Further Reading:

McDowall, Roddy. Double Exposure. New York, Delacorte Press, 1966.

McGilligan, Patrick. Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Peary, Danny, ed. Close-Ups: The Movie Star Book. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1978.

Robinson, Edward G., with Leonard Spigelgass. All My Yesterdays. New York, Hawthorn, 1973.

Shay, Don. Conversations. Albuquerque, Kaleidoscope Press, 1969.

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