A Movie A Day: BROTHER ORCHID (1940) Flo, sometimes you got me guessin’ whether you’re even a nitwit.
Published at: Dec. 21, 2008, 2:48 a.m. CST by quint
It wouldn’t be right to follow up Orson Welles’ underrated noir THE STRANGER with an Edward G. Robinson flick that was anything else but a gangster movie. With today’s BROTHER ORCHID we get not just a gangster movie, but one that is almost a commentary on the gangster movies of the time.
Robinson plays the head of a criminal outfit who gives it all up to travel across Europe. He retires at the very beginning of the movie, his boys (including his number 2, Humphrey Bogart) giving him a friendly send-off. He even hooks up the doll that hangs on him (Ann Sothern) with a candy girl job at the local hot night club, even though she desperately wants to go with him.
Then we’re treated to a montage of clips, photos and headlines following Robinson as he lives a life of luxury and notoriety, rubbing shoulders with the world’s elite.
That is until he spends all his money on what is supposed to be a priceless jewel and it turns out to be a fake. Five years have gone by and now he returns home expecting to take his old job back, his old lady back and generally wants to go back to his old routine.
Not so fast, says Humphrey Bogart. Bogie is actually kind of a dick here. He and the boys have a big welcome home party for Robinson, letting him believe he’s going to have everything he had before only to spring the reality on him. Bogart now runs the gang and he doesn’t plan on giving it up. Everybody Robinson treated like peons back Bogie and Robinson has to try to regroup those loyal to him to retake what’s his.
Sounds like a pretty conventional set-up for a ‘40s gangster flick, but that’s essentially the first 1/3rd of the film. The story takes a radical turn, which leaves Robinson bleeding on the doorstep of a monestary. The monks take him in and teach him their ways, finding peace cultivating and selling flowers.
Even before that screwball the film seemed like an exaggeration of the gangster film of the ‘30s. Every single hardnose shouts out a long, drawn-out “Seeeeeee?” after every line. It almost seems like a comment on those kinds of films… maybe one I don’t agree with, about how they glorify ignorance and reward violence, but I think there’s definitely a statement in there.
The love story between Robinson and Sothern is quite unconventional. He treats her like dirt, but soon realizes that she is the only person on this earth that can and will love him for who he is… even if she is a ditz. When he returns from his European adventure, he finds that she has become a star, but her love hasn’t changed. She’s there for him just as when she was a nobody, even if she has a tall, dumb and handsome cowboy following her around like a puppy-dog.
There is a bit of a triangle there, but it’s like one I’ve never seen. There isn’t really a rivalry, even though there is some hurt feelings over choices Sothern has to make. In the end, the two men get along really well and are surprisingly supportive of each other.
I guess the heart of the film is with the monks and their viewpoint on life. That’s also the comedy of the film, too. Robinson initially views the privacy of the monestary as a perfect place to lay low while Bogie’s people get comfortable thinking he’s dead. He doesn’t take the place and his duties within it seriously, so he gets his work done using techniques he learned during prohibition. For instance, he is highly praised for his ability to coax three times the milk out of the monks’ cow and he acts all humble about it, but in reality he’s cutting the milk with water.
Stuff like that.
But Robinson realy does play up the heart of the character as he grows to respect the monks and their outlook on life. His character has to look inward and find that he too can find doing something for others just as rewarding as having things done for him, if not moreso.
That doesn’t mean he lets Bogart off the hook. No, siree Bob. There’s a nice fist-fight between the two to close the film. Funnily, this is the only team up between Bogart and Robinson where at least one of them didn’t end up dead.
The overall film is a kind of bizarrely heartfelt gangster comedy. Bogart is great, just on the cusp of exploding into the history books and Robinson shows a subtle versatility here that he’s not exactly known for. If you were to just half-watch this movie you’d miss it, but he does some great work with his face, slight body language and eye tics telling you everything the character is thinking and feeling.
Sothern is a tad annoying, but that’s her character. She’s hot, so all is forgiven.
Final Thoughts: Lloyd Bacon directs a surprisingly multi-layered examination of a typical gangster story that has more heart and humor than I expected when I first popped it in. It’s a quick and light story, but atypical and all the fresher for it.
Here’s what we have lined up for the next week:
Sunday, December 21st: THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936)
Monday, December 22nd: MOONTIDE (1942)
Tuesday, December 23rd: NOTORIOUS (1946)
Wednesday, December 24th: THE INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS (1958)
Thursday, December 25th: THE HIGH COMMISSIONER (1968)
Friday, December 26th: THE SILENT PARTNER (1979)
Saturday, December 27th: PAYDAY (1972)
I found some internet while on the first of two layovers on my way back to Austin. I don’t get back home until midnight tonight… at which time I will slip into a small coma. After the coma is over (providing I don’t awaken years into the future with the ability to see that the ice is too thin or that my nurse’s daughter is going to be in a fire) I will be following Humphrey Bogart over to THE PETRIFIED FOREST. See you folks then!