Compared to the infinite number of indistinguishable pretty boys popping up in one forgettable flick after another today, there could only have been one Edward G. Robinson. Hailing from a time in Tinseltown when tough guys could be larger-than-life no matter how short and squatty they may have been, Robinson's noticeable lack of height (or a handsome mug) may have prevented him from landing more romantic, nice guy roles, but his natural grumpy-looking demeanor soon found him shooting up the ladder of success in 1931 when he landed the lead in the crime drama classic Little Caesar. This pivotal role would keep Robinson working steadily in the industry all the way up until his death in 1973, though not all of his motion picture appearances have found their way to home video in the years that have followed. Fortunately, the Warner Archive Collection has enabled us to get four steps closer to a complete Edward G. Robinson filmography with this quartet of features which have been obscured by the sands of time.
The earliest feature of this foursome, The Widow from Chicago, hails all the way back from 1930. The Pre-Code ditty from First National Pictures finds a pre-Little Caesar Robinson perfecting his tough guy schtick, taking second-billing to the gorgeous Alice White (not to be confused with one of my favorite adult performers, Alice Green). Ms. White takes center stage here as a young lass whose policeman brother is gunned down by Eddie's men after he (unsuccessfully) attempts to impersonate a mobster whom everyone else believes is dead. Neil Hamilton, best known to audiences as playing Commissioner Gordon in the campy '60s Batman television series, portrays the supposedly deceased fellow, who also gets to be the film's lovable rogue of a leading man. Frank McHugh steals every scene he's in as one of Robinson's underlings; B western regular Lee Shumway and frequent mystery co-star Brooks Benedict also appear in this early talkie from future W.C. Fields collaborator, Edward F. Cline.
Jumping well past the Pre-Code era and straight into the peak of Hollywood's Golden Age, 1939's Blackmail finds Edward G. as a successful oil fire fighter (hey, somebody's gotta do it) with an oil field of his own in the making, but who is ‒ in fact ‒ an escaped chain-gang convict. His oddly public charade comes crashing down once a magnificently subtly sleazy Gene Lockhart enters the picture and starts taking his old pal for a ride. Early George W. Bush prototype Guinn "Big Boy" Williams plays Robinson's dimwitted partner, whose entire introductory scene is ripe for parody because of his passing resemblance to the former. Ruth Hussey is Edward's lovingly faithful spouse, Bobs Watson is their child (and one of the worst child actors ever), John Wray and Arthur Hohl also star. Willie Best and Charles Middleton make uncredited appearances in this offering from MGM and director H.C. Potter, who later helmed Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream Home and Olsen and Johnson's most (in)famous film, Hellzapoppin'.
Were one to go by the artwork and trailer for 1940's A Dispatch from Reuter's alone, they would most likely envision a dark and atmospheric noir-esque mystery. And they would be completely wrong, as this Warner Bros. picture's poster art ‒ which shows a contemporary, scowling Robinson ‒ and preview are about as deceptive as can be. Rather, this film is mostly set in the mid-1800s, and finds a moustached Robinson as a serious-minded but very likeable fictional incarnation of Julius Reuter, who sought to bridge the gap between European cities with innovative ideas such as carrier pigeons and the telegraph. A young Eddie Albert, looking and acting very much like Dick Shawn crossed with Will Ferrell, co-stars, along with Edna Best, Nigel Bruce (in rare, clean-shaven form), David Bruce (no relation), Otto Kruger, Albert Bassermann, Gene Lockhart (again), and Dickie Moore. William Dieterle directs this charming biopic, which features a score and cinematography by Oscar winners Max Steiner and James Wong Howe.
Lastly in this alliance betwixt Edward G. Robinson and the Warner Archive Collection is Unholy Partners from 1941. Opening as if it were a remake of The Hoodlum Saint, the story finds journalist/war hero Robinson returning from World War I, eager to try something new. So, he creates a sensational tabloid rag which prints top stories well before they happen, relying on various contacts (police or otherwise) to ensure they do happen. Edward Arnold is Robinson's titular business associate, who also happens to be the city's mob boss. Needless to say, they don't always see eye to eye. Laraine Day is Edward G.'s lovestruck secretary (straight out of The Mouthpiece), Marsha Hunt belts out a tune for young William T. Orr, and Don Beddoe gets one of his few prominent billing spots in the credits. Don Costello has a minor role as a creepy ladykiller and Billy Benedict can be seen briefly as a copyboy (naturally). Mervyn LeRoy directs and co-produces this fun little gem from MGM.
All four films make their official DVD debut here from the Warner Archive Collection, who presenting each title from this forgotten quartet in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio with overall lovely transfers. Mono stereo soundtracks accompany all four features, sounding as crisp and as clear as can be, and most of the titles also include original theatrical trailers as supplemental material. Even if, by some cruel act of fate, you've never had the pleasure of seeing this late professional in action, you'll have a darn good time trying these new-to-DVD titles out, see? Highly recommended.