Brother Orchid (1940)

“Yeah, I know all about probation.”

Johnny Sarto (Edward G. Robinson) decides to retire to Europe and get some “class.” He leaves behind his loyal girlfriend, Flo Addams (Ann Sothern) and hands his gangster business over to his second-in-command, Jack Buck (Humphrey Bogart). Five years later, now penniless, Johnny decides he wants to return to New York and take over his business again. He wires his old gang and heads back home. Johnny is picked up off the ship, and at first, it seems as though the old gang welcomes him back with open arms. Buck, however, makes it clear that the business is now his, and that Johnny had better scram ….

Johnny decides to find Flo (he hasn’t bothered to keep in touch), and he finds that she’s experienced a great change in fortune. She’s now living in a swanky hotel and owns the nightclub she used to work in. Johnny’s plan is to form another gang, but Flo wants Johnny to make peace with Buck and arranges a private meeting ….

Brother Orchid is a great vehicle for Edward G. Robinson, and the role allows him to play the gangster with a comedic element. When the film begins, it’s obvious that Johnny is making a horrible mistake trying to buy “class” through his European travels. It makes perfect sense that once this scheme fails, he’d return to the only thing he’d been good at–a life of crime. Unfortunately, the film’s affectionate treatment of the character of Johnny extends to other aspects of the film. For example, when Johnny returns, he’s embraced (at first) by the gang, and then they play a practical joke on him. The joke is followed by a serious threat from Buck. This swing–from the comic to the serious undermines the film overall. The comedic elements are appropriate and necessary as they lead into Johnny’s sojourn at a monastery, and here his ingrained gangster ethics meet head on with the ethics of the monastery. Edward G. Robinson’s character allows for plenty of comedy–but the film went overboard at a few crucial, serious moments. This serves only to detract from the tension.

While Edward G. Robinson steals the film, there are some great supporting roles here–Ann Sothern as Johnny’s long-suffering, dingy girlfriend is refreshingly delightful (watch for the scene at Fat Duchy’s Tavern). She’s adopted a cowboy, Clarence Fletcher (Ralph Bellamy) who finances her nightclub operation, and she treats him like a much loved pet dog. Johnny, who isn’t exactly known for his subtle thinking, can’t quite fathom the relationship between Flo and Fletcher. Bogart as the rival gangster Buck is suitably convincing and threatening. Brother Orchid is good entertainment, and Edward G. Robinson fans will enjoy this good-natured film from director Lloyd Bacon.

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