Pre-Code Crazy: The Little Giant (1933)

Edward G. Robinson? Mary Astor? It’s a “don’t miss” combo – and the reason why The Little Giant (1933) is my Pre-Code Crazy pick for the month of August. (My Pre-Code Crazy partner in crime, Kristina over at Speakeasy, is taking a little break from our monthly collaboration, so I’m going to do my best to keep it moving in her absence!)

The Little Giant is a rare Robinson comedy (for that matter, I’m not all that accustomed to seeing Astor in comedies either, especially during this stage of her career), but it’s a welcome one, and is a perfect showcase for the actor’s versatile talent. The movie opens with the presidential election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, which signals the impending termination of Prohibition.  The members of Chicago’s Little Social Club are none too pleased about this news, but the gang’s leader, J. Francis “Bugs” Ahearn (Robinson) accepts the eventuality with philosophical optimism: “It lasted long enough to put us in the dough.” He divvies up the profits from the group’s bootlegging enterprise and vows to turn legit. “I’m gonna mingle with the upper classes,” he tells them. “I’m gonna be a gentleman.”

Before he leaves for California, Bugs leaves a little something for one of his former rivals.

When we next seen Bugs, he’s wearing a smoking jacket and spats, practicing his golf game in his drawing room. He affectionately but decidedly gives his girl, Edith, the gate – along with a check for 25 grand (nice work, if you can get it), and also gets rid of his trucks, machine guns, and ammunition. When his right-hand man Al (Russell Hopton) insists on staying with him, Bugs acquiesces, but on one condition – Al will have to “keep improving himself.”

Bugs and Al head for California, winding up in Santa Barbara, but Bugs soon finds out that the “American Riviera” is not all that it’s cracked up to be. When he realizes that he’s paying a whopping $45 a day to stay at the Biltmore Hotel, Bugs runs around his suite, turning on all the lights and water and shining his shoes with the towels: “They ain’t gonna make a chump outta me!” he declares. “I’m gonna get my money’s worth!” At dinner, Bugs is embarrassed to find that all of the other gents are wearing suits, while he and Al – following Al’s advice – are decked out in white tie and tails. And after three whole days, Bugs hasn’t met a single woman: “They walk around like we have the smallpox. Forty-five bucks a day, and they high-hat ya.”

Bugs can’t get enough of Polly.

Lucky (or maybe not so lucky) for Bugs, a chance encounter brings him into the realm of the super-swanky (or so they seem) Cass family and their perfectly posh daughter, Polly (Helen Vinson), who makes fun of Bugs behind his back until she learns that he’s a millionaire. For his part, Bugs is instantly smitten, and in an effort to impress Polly, he rents a 20-room mansion; the real estate agent is Ruth Wayburn (Astor), who Bugs promptly hires to help him run the house. What he doesn’t know is that the house actually belongs to Ruth, and that she needs the money to pay the back taxes and interest.

When it’s not focusing on Bugs’s persistent efforts to fit into Santa Barbara high society, the film centers on the three principal characters: Ruth, who is falling in love with Bugs, who’s crazy about Polly, who has a boyfriend on the side and plans to marry Bugs for his money. The non-stop goings-on also focus on Polly’s deadbeat brother and corrupt father, and their efforts to carve out a slice of Bugs’s cash pie for themselves. It’s an action-packed, fun-filled romp that will hold your attention until the madcap conclusion.

And here’s some other stuff:

Russell Hopton was a standout in the film.

Al was played by Russell Hopton, who had previously been seen in such pre-Codes as The Miracle Woman (1931), Street Scene (1931), and Night World (1932). In The Little Giant, he played one of his biggest and best roles, and was a standout as Bugs’s wisecracking but utterly devoted sidekick. Sadly, Hopton’s career declined as the 1930s went on, and in 1945, at the age of 45, he committed suicide.

The cast also features Leonard Carey, who made a career in Hollywood primarily playing butlers, waiters, and valets. Here, he plays the butler for the Cass family – you might remember him from similar roles in such hits as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Bombshell (1933), Rebecca (1940), Mrs. Miniver (1942), Heaven Can Wait (1943), and Strangers on a Train (1951). During a career that spanned three decades, Carey appeared in close to 150 films.

Mary Astor is a delight. (What else is new?)

One of my favorite lines comes when Bugs is telling Al that he’s been preparing for his entry into society by reading Greek philosophy and purchasing fine art. He points to one of the new paintings on his wall: “You ever seen anything like that before?” he asks, to which Al drolly rejoins, “Not since I been off cocaine.” (Whoa!) Another favorite comes after Bugs moves into his new mansion, and Al is testing the springs on one of the beds. “Boy, what a crib!” he says. Bugs responds, “Kinda gives you ideas,” and Al retorts, with his voice fairly dripping with innuendo, “You think not?”

Near the end of the film, Ruth tells Bugs what she really thinks of his beloved Polly, revealing that Polly has been in one scandal after another since the age of 16, and saying that Polly has been “a sister-in-law to the world.” I’m not really sure what that means, but I’m certain that it’s not a compliment. (If you know, please share with the group!)

Tune in to TCM on August 26th, Mary Astor Day on Summer Under the Stars, to see The Little Giant. I think you’ll be glad you did.

~ by shadowsandsatin on August 20, 2019.

13 Responses to “Pre-Code Crazy: The Little Giant (1933)”

  1. Glad you brought this movie to our attention! Looking forward to seeing it on August 26th.

  2. Reblogged this on The Last Drive In and commented:
    pre-Code Crazy The Little Giant (1933) review by Shadows and Satin. It’s Robinson and Astor and it’s grand!

  3. Not since i been off cocaine HILARIOUS

  4. Another enjoyable post – thank you. I sincerely hope you’ve read “Mary Astor’s Purple Diaries.” It’s terrific and shines a light on Pre-Code Hollywood that shows what’s in the dark corners. Puppies and kittens, Connie


    • Thank you so much, Constance! I have not read Mary Astor’s book — although I did see a documentary about the diaries. I really need to get that book — thanks for the tip!

  5. Love this movie. I always enjoy Helen Vinson. Great cast.

  6. That shake your hand and punch him out gag never gets old ! 🙂

  7. I love this film, and I’m in need of a re-watch.
    Also: You’re absolutely right about the fab Mary Astor. She’s wonderful here.

  8. Thanks for the great post! I feel like I’ve at least seen the beginning, but I must have had to leave & miss the end of the film! I’ll have to catch it on TCM on demand. Fun post with memorable quotes & GIF!😀

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