Brother Orchid


Brother Superior: When the heart speaks, Brother Orchid, other hearts must listen.

Brother Orchid (1940)

Interested in seeing a screwball-comedy-film noir gangster-western-religious flick?  I am always on the lookout for oddball films for Advent and they don’t come odder, or more heart warming, than Brother Orchid (1940).  Starring Edward G. Robinson with a fantastic supporting cast including Humphrey Bogart, Ann Southern, Ralph Bellamy and Donald Crisp, it is a trip back to the Golden Age of Hollywood when literate, thoughtful films were considered mass entertainment.  It also is a fine exponent of a facet of the human condition that is not much commented upon today:  the seductive power of good.  A review of the film is below with the usual caveat as to spoilers.

Originally the role of Brother Orchid was to be filled by James Cagney.  Instead, the role went to another actor who achieved stardom from gangster roles:  Edward G. Robinson.  The son of Jewish immigrants from Romania, Robinson was frequently cast as an Italian-American and so it was in this movie.  Little John Sarto is the head of a protection racket.  The film opens with a meeting between him and his chief lieutenants.  His second in command, Jack Buck, portrayed in a surly fashion by Humphrey Bogart, has bumped off a competitor.  Sarto is annoyed, viewing murder as being bad for business.  He resigns, saying that he is going off to Europe in search of “real class”.  All of this is light in tone, indicating the screwball comedy element of this polyglot film.  The exception is Humphrey Bogart, who plays his role straight and menacing.  It is almost as if Bogart was in a separate film.  It is odd, but effective.

Prior to his leaving for Europe he meets with his longtime girl friend Flo Adams, played as delightfully ditzy by Ann Southern who never got as many roles in comedies as her considerable comedic skills warranted:

Flo Addams: Johnny, wait a minute. I want you to carry this with you.

Little Johnny Sarto: What is it?

Flo Addams: It’s a rabbit’s foot. A lucky charm. My uncle wore it for 32 years.

Little Johnny Sarto: A lucky charm, eh? Where’d you get it?

Flo Addams: From my mother. With her own hand she took it off of my uncle after they hung him.

Flo wants to get married and accompany Sarto to Europe.  Sarto begs off the marriage hint and gets her a job as a hatcheck girl while he is in Europe.

Off to Europe he goes for five years and manages to be swindled by every con artist on the continent.  The film shows this as a result of Sarto’s attempt to gain class by buying items:  the largest diamond in the world that turns out to be a doorknob, the swiftest horse in the word that turns out to be a nag, etc.  Frustrated and broke, Sarto returns to the US planning to resume his position at the head of the protection racket.

Times have changed while he was away.  His old gang is now run by Jack Buck who wastes no time in telling Sarto that he is through, and that if Sarto attempts to topple Buck, Buck will take care of him permanently.  His girl is now the owner of the nightclub where Sarto got her a job as a hatcheck girl, thanks to an investment by her platonic cattle baron boyfriend Clarence Fletcher, played by Ralph Bellamy in the oddest bit of casting in his long career.  Sarto reassembles a mob and begins to successfully cut in on his old protection racket.  His downfall comes when his girlfriend Flo attempts to play peacemaker with Buck, leading to the capture of Sarto, and his being shot and left for dead in a marsh.  He manages to reach a monastery where he is nursed back to health.

The monastery is a “Floracian Monastery” and the monks are known as little brothers of the flowers.  They raise flowers and sell them in the city to support their charitable activities.  Richard Connell, who wrote the short story on which the movie was based, based his fictional monks on a Dominican monastery.

When he first awakens Sarto says, “I made it!”, thinking he has died and gone to heaven.  The monk taking care of him, a former prize fighter, disabuses him of that notion.  The reaction of the fictional Sarto was typical of Catholic gangsters of the period.  Bad men as they were, most of them had no doubt of the Truth of what the Church taught, even if they did not live by it.  Sarto quickly realizes that the monastery can offer him a safe haven for the time being and writes to a member of his gang stating that he is safe among the biggest bunch of chumps in the world.  He takes the name of Brother Orchid.



After he is at the monastery for a while Sarto begins to change his mind about the monks being chumps.  He sees them giving away two dollars to buy shoes for a child, money that was originally going to be used to buy watermelon as a treat for the monks.  He is told that the only true happiness in the world is doing good for others, and he admits that there might be something to this.  Against his will, Sarto begins to change.  All his life he has been searching for something, and he is beginning to realize that, incredibly, he has found it at the monastery.


Published in: on December 11, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Brother Orchid  
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And All His Empty Promises


Back when I was a boy, I watched entirely too much television.  Of course, who could blame me?  Tempted by a luxuriant three, count them, three channels, albeit one of them fuzzy in bad weather, to choose from!  However, I do not regret watching the Early Show on Channel 3.  Back in those bygone days, many stations would run old movies from the thirties, forties and fifties, between 3:00 PM-5:00 PM.  Thus I first experienced some of the classics of cinema, and one of my favorites was Double Indemnity, 1944, the first of the film noire genre. Adultery and murder were perhaps too mature topics for me in my initial pre-teen viewings, but I was fascinated by it because it seemed to be a playing out on screen of what I was learning at the time from The Baltimore Catechism:  that sin will lead inevitably to destruction unless contrition and amendment are made.   The film was fortunate to have at its center three masters of the craft of acting.


Fred MacMurray, born in Kankakee, Illinois, 37 miles from my abode, in 1907, was a good guy in real life and usually in reel life.  A firm Catholic and staunch Republican, he tried to join the military after Pearl Harbor but a punctured ear drum kept him out of service.  He adopted a total of four kids with his two wives:  his first wife dying from cancer in 1953, and his second wife remaining his wife until his death.  (Such fidelity was as rare in Hollywood then as it is now.)  On screen MacMurray played to type and was almost always a good guy, but not always, and it is ironic  that the two best performances of his career came when he played bad guys:  weak, lustful and doomed Walter Neff in Double Indemnity and the scheming, cowardly Lieutenant  Thomas Keefer in The Caine Mutiny.


Barbara Stanwyck had a Dickensian childhood from which she was lucky to emerge alive, her mother dying of a miscarriage and her father going off to work on the Panama Canal and never being heard from again.  A series of foster homes followed, which Ruby Catherine Stevens, as Stanwyck was then named, constantly ran away from.  Dropping out of school at 14 to begin working, she never looked back.  Breaking into show business by becoming a dancer in the Ziegfield Follies at age 16, she was a star on broadway in the play Burlesque before she turned 20.  Changing her name to Barbara Stanwyck, she broke into films immediately thereafter, displaying a flair for both drama and comedy, specializing in strong independent women.  Her personal, as opposed to her professional, life was a mess.  Married in 1928 to her Burlesque co-star Frank Fay, they adopted a son, Stanwyck having been rendered sterile by an abortion at 15.  The marriage ended in divorce in 1935, Fay during the marriage often slapping Stanwyck around when he was drunk. Stanwyck got custody of their son.  Stanwyck was a hovering and authoritarian mother, leading to a life long alienation from her son after he became an adult.  Stanwyck married actor Robert Taylor in 1939, and, after numerous acts of infidelity on both sides, divorced in 1950.  Ironically Stanwyck and Taylor did stay friends after their divorce, Stanwyck, who never remarried, referring to him as the true love of her life.  In her politics Stanwyck was a staunch conservative Republican who supported the investigations of Congress into Communist infiltration into Hollywood.  Remaining in demand as an actress almost until her death in 1990, she filled her last years with charitable work.  Stanwyck was well equipped by her own tumultuous life to give depth to her portrayal of the murderous, scheming Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity.


Although remembered today chiefly for his gangster roles and his portrayal of the rat-like Dathan in The Ten Commandments, Edward G. Robinson was actually an actor with a very broad range of work:  comedies, dramas, historical epics, you name it.  By 1944 he was age 51 and realized that his days as a leading man were coming to a close.  His half comedic role as the insurance claims adjuster Barton Keyes in Double Indemnity he viewed as a step in his transition to being a character actor.  Always a liberal, Robinson was blacklisted in Hollywood due to his affiliation with Communist front groups.  Robinson admitted as much by an article he wrote for the American Legion Magazine entitled “How the Reds Made a Sucker Out of Me”.  His comeback came when anti-Communist director Cecil B. DeMille, who thought that Robinson had been treated unfairly, cast him in the scene-stealing role of Dathan in The Ten Commandments.


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Published in: on August 11, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on And All His Empty Promises  
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