I have been a fan of the Warner Archive since the beginning. The idea of a treasury of rare, unknown, and hard to find movies available for purchase as made-to-order DVDs was a glorious treat to a classic film fan and collector. Recently, I have discovered their fantastic podcast to which I have quickly become addicted. Through the podcast I have found more classic films to buy and add to my collection (Thanks George, DW, and Matt!), as well as the new streaming video on demand (SVOD) service aka WARNER ARCHIVE INSTANT. I am currently trying my free month trial but I am sure that I will be continuing my subscription well after. It is from the WARNER ARCHIVE INSTANT service that we find our next film…from Warner Brothers in 1940, BROTHER ORCHID.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this movie but I decided that any film with Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart was definitely worth a look! Edward G. Robinson stars as Johnny Sarto, the boss of a racketeering gang. After becoming disgusted with the gangland underworld, Johnny decides to quit the racketeering business and travel to Europe in search of “class”. Jack Buck, played by Humphrey Bogart, is Johnny’s second in command who takes over the gang upon Johnny’s departure. Johnny also has a devoted girlfriend named Flo, played by Ann Sothern, who wants nothing more than to travel with Johnny and to be his wife. But that isn’t the sort of class that Johnny is going for, so before he leaves he sets Flo up with a position as a hat check girl at a night club.
Over the next five years Johnny travels all over Europe, spending money on all the finest things and getting fleeced in the process. At the end of it all he is broke with nothing to show for it. There is nothing left to do but to return to the big city from whence he came and reclaim his position as a gangland kingpin. Upon his return everything seems normal, his boys are all happy to see him and they even bought him his favorite orchids to celebrate. But all is not as it seems, as Johnny soon finds out. While he was gone, Jack Buck has taken over and is proving himself to be a ruthless gangster and “business man”. Jack gives Johnny the heave-ho and a warning, don’t come back.
Johnny goes to find Flo, only to discover that she has become a rich nightclub owner. Flo is also being pursued by a polite, charming, and sweet cowboy named Clarence, played by Ralph Bellamy. Still in love with Johnny after all these years, Flo vows to help Johnny get back on top (with Clarence’s help, of course).
Johnny starts to rebuild his crew and sets about to compete with Jack Buck, who has recently entered the “protection business”. Flo is still hoping to become Mrs. Johnny Sarto but the time is never right. One night Johnny can’t make their date because of his dealings with Jack Buck and his gang. He calls Flo to tell her, explaining that everything he is doing is so that he can get enough class to marry her. Flo, feeling guilty for making Johnny work so hard and doing nothing herself, decides to help. She decides that she will go to Jack Buck personally, and set up a meeting between him and Johnny. To her surprise, Jack is completely willing to meet with Johnny to talk over their “misunderstanding”…but couldn’t they have the meeting far out of town? All Flo has to do is get Johnny there, but not let him know that Jack will be there too. Flo agrees, but has Clarence go along with her for protection.
The night of the big meeting arrives and Flo gets Johnny to the rendezvous with him none the wiser to her real intent. Clarence sits outside in a parked car, waiting for any trouble. Jack arrives and signals Flo away from the table, and outside someone knocks out Clarence. Once Flo leaves the table, Jack approaches and presses a gun to Johnny’s back. They take a walk outside, where Johnny sees Flo. Believing that he has been betrayed, Johnny is put into a car with Jack’s men and taken away. The idea is to get rid of Johnny, but he manages to escape from his would be assassins but not before being shot. Wounded and exhausted, Johnny ends up at…a monastery of flower selling brothers who soon have a run in with Jack Buck’s protection services.
Based on a story written by Richard Connell for COLLIER’S MAGAZINE in 1938, BROTHER ORCHID is a really fun and funny film. It was not one that I had heard of, but one that I really enjoyed! Directed by Lloyd Bacon with a screen play by Earl Baldwin (and contributions from Jerry Wald and Richard Macauley), this film is a gangster movie making fun of gangster movies. Edward G. Robinson seems to be having a great time, even appearing to poke fun at himself and his famous role as Rico in LITTLE CAESAR.
Speaking of Edward G. Robinson, I admit I often think of him as his roles as gangsters and villains such as LITTLE CAESAR and KEY LARGO. But after watching this film, I have a much deeper appreciation for him as an actor and a greater desire to see him in some of his other roles. Edward G. Robinson never seems too cartoony or over the top. There is a genuineness in his acting, even when he is not the best man in the room, that makes him endlessly watchable and completely relatable. I will definitely be seeking out more of his films!
This movie doesn’t end the way you might expect, but I felt that the ending made sense to the story and to the character of Johnny Sarto. The message of the story isn’t all that different, a man trying to find “class” or worth in the world, but how we get there is clever and a little surprising. All in all, this is a unique and enjoyable film that deserves to be more well known than it is.