Alan L. Gansberg. Little Caesar: A Biography of Edward G. Robinson. Scarecrow Press, 2004. 305 pages; $29.95.
When Edward G. Robinson appeared in Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939, he was dramatising on film the liberal values that he expressed so vocally in life. The drama is an attack on Nazi sympathisers in the United States, specifically those in the German-American Bund, and the star of Little Caesar plays a dogged FBI agent who uses every wily trick (and a lot of schoolmasterly pipe-smoking) to bring the fascist subversives to justice. At the time, the production was a sensation, but seen today, it seems strident and even a little chilling. For this fictional FBI is so sure of its methods and cause that the viewer suspects any shift in the political temperature might turn this crusade for freedom into its oppressive opposite. In fact, as Alan Gansberg shows, something like this did happen. As the threat of Soviet Communism increased after the Second World War, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) began to bait Reds, pinks, and anyone who got in its way, Robinson discovered that not all subversives were Hitler-loving maniacs. Left-leaning men like him could be fingered, too.
This is a film star biography, so it presents all the details of studio feuds and unhappy marriages, but its wider underlying theme is how melting pot America, with its belief in pluralism and free speech, almost collapsed under the political pressures of the Cold War. Robinson embodied the bright hope and its subsequent near eclipse. Born Emanuel Goldenberg in the Jewish section of Bucharest in 1893, he settled in New York as a boy and began the arduous climb towards becoming an American. Part of this process was political. While still at high school, he had discovered a passion for idealistic causes, and had campaigned for William Randolph Hearst in the New York mayoral election of 1909. (In those days, the yellow journalist was a champion of the people.)
Another part involved the personal transformation inherent in acting. Young Manny loved the stage, and, after dropping out of college and attending drama school, he worked long and hard on Broadway until Warner Bros. signed him up in 1930. A year later, he played the leading role in Linle Caesar, and his portrayal of a menacing Italian gangster made him one of the most popular stars of the period. Riches and accolades followed. There was a swanky house on Rexford Drive in Beverly Hills, and the beginnings of a distinguished art collection that became the highlight of any Hollywood tour; Robinson and his wife Gladys became the social leaders of a tinseled elite.
This glamour was standard film star stuff, but it had a far more earnest side. Moved to action by the Depression and the growing menace of European fascism, the on-screen tough guy became an off-screen soft guy by backing a host of liberal causes. In the 1930s, for example, he was involved in the Holly wood Anti-Nazi League; later, he was a member of the Hollywood Independent Citizens' Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions (a mouthful known as HICCASP), which was designed to uphold the principles of Roosevelt's New Deal. Gansberg shows how these activities were a responsible engagement with the issues of a particular time; unfortunately, by the late Forties, right wing politicians and the FBI began to see them as indications of a certain fondness for Moscow. Gripped by paranoia (and delusion in some cases), HUAC and Hoover's G-men set out to drain America, and its film industry, of anything with the faintest tinge of red. …