Brother Orchid (1940)

Brother Orchid (1940) is a Warner Bros. comedy gangster caper which while not a part of the classic film noir cycle, is an interesting stop on the route.

One of five films to star both Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, Brother Orchid is a  shenanigan-based production which manages to eke out comedy from gangsterism — never truly easy in the era — while combing a spiritual and moral aspect, which doesn't quite pull the criminality from crime, but refashions it for social purpose.

The story kicks off with crime boss Little John Sarto (played by Edward G. Robinson) retiring suddenly, giving leadership of his gang to Jack Buck (played by Humphrey Bogart) while he leaves for a tour of Europe to acquire 'class'. However, Sarto is repeatedly swindled and finally loses all his money in a series of daft newspaper headlines.

Sarto decides to return home and take back his gang, as if nothing has changed after five years, but Buck has him thrown out of his office. This is the typical Bogart role of the era, as the uncompromising bad guy, harder than coffin nails, and only ever smiling in vicious glee. 

There is plenty of this Bogart action in the 1930s proto noir gangster films, in which a young Bogart finds type in the evil side, becoming almost the ultimate hood before his transformation in the 1940s into leading man, good guy, cynical sleuth, and more.

Humphrey Bogart in Brother Orchid (1940)

The only people who remain loyal to Sarto are his girlfriend Flo Addams and Willie "the Knife" Corson. Sarto and so he raises a new gang and starts encroaching on Buck's territory.

It's within this process that he meets Clarence Fletcher, played by Ralph Bellamy, one of several fairly silly pastiche characters who maintain the comedy by all physical and verbal means.

The initial story has something in common with an earlier Warner Bros. Edward G. Robinson hit — the gangster comedy hit The Little Giant (1933) in which a similar series of malapropisms are issued in the opening moments, to play up the comedy of mooks.

The story however remains the same in that Robinson, out of business in crime, makes an effort to acquire 'class' instead — with comic results. 

The newspapers tell all in Brother Orchid (1940)

The amiably amusing action is deepened into more spiritually aware themes when Edward G. Robinson's former gangster Sarto winds up getting shot by his rivals and taking refuge in a monastery dedicated to the cultivation and reverence of flowers —  and hence the gangster's adopted moniker — Brother Orchid.

Edward G. Robinson in Brother Orchid (1940)

Combining the two milieu and fitting in comedy to boot is a tough ask, making of the final result a strange mixture of high morality and street smarts, as Sarto uses his violent past and the training of the streets to save the monk's business, which is ailing due to their being unable to afford the protection money demanded by the mob — now run by Sarto's ex-partner, the heartless Buck, played by Humphrey Bogart.

Edward G. Robinson facing down corporate crime in Brother Orchid (1940)

A change-up from the violent formula of the gangster films of yore, and certainly those made pre-Code, Brother Orchid appears to be a further effort from Warner Bros. to soften the evil load of gangsterism they had been inflicting on the public for years. 

Both comedy and spiritualism are brought in to achieve this effect, and these create interesting aspects to character development as Edward G. Robinson as Sarto transform through idiotic failure, through comedy and violent downfall, to a spiritual awakening through which he finds contentment and happiness, to a morally sound grip on the streets that started it all off.

Ralph Bellamy in Brother Orchid (1940)

Then there's the ridiculous fun of the notion of the monastery raising money through its business ... and 'givin' all the dough to the poor!'

However, there is no place in film noir for any of this. While reformation is an occasional possibility in film noir, it is usually only through death and while spiritualism may lead to some honest hat-wringing goodness, there can be no film noir goodness without fibrous cynicism cutting into the heart and throwing out the attempts at the positive. 

Humphrey Bogart in Brother Orchid (1940)

Even the slightest variation on the gangster theme can remove any trace of noir then it appears — and as for a character finding a renewed faith in humanity — again it is possibility in film noir that usually only arises through the troubled course of a  romantic relationship, and could never in any film noir fantasy be reached through the goodness of God, or the goodness of God's servants.

The servants of God in Brother Orchid are a rather vague spiritual assortment, a crew of do-gooders who seem to have only innocence and inexperience as their backdrop and motivation. 

Finally that a gangster could reinvent himself as a pious monk, is a light-headed fantasy far beyond the realms of film noir, and into a simple and plain universe where redemption and forgiveness switch on and off like light switches, at the beck and call of some dull living and po-faced monks, who know less about life than the flowers they tend.

Deciding that dough is not the be all and end all and that monastic living is in fact the definition of 'class' makes Brother Orchid the most non-noirish piece of gangsterism that ever hit the screen.

Edward G. Robinson and Donald Crisp as spiritual flower farmers in Brother Orchid (1940)

Yet Brother Orchid maintains a place in noir history for its attempts to pull the genres and styles of the 1940s into new forms that may or may not have saved them from either censorship or the moribund effects of repetition. As it was, classic film noir was primed to travel in the opposite direction, and be harder, more brutal, more cynical and above all — entirely unforgiving.

Monastery Mealtime in Brother Orchid (1940)

Brother Orchid (1940) at Wikipedia

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