Brother Orchid Review

Still entertaining despite being almost totally sanitised, Brother Orchid was another attempt by Warner Bros. to continue their gangster pictures amidst a quickly drying well of creativity and a content clampdown from the Production Code. Edward G. Robinson stars as "Little" Johnny Sarto, city racketeer and unlikely monk-to-be who's first seen reading a newspaper headline about a gangland killing. In probably the only smart move he makes during the film, Johnny decides he needs some class, see, and this gangster business is for the birds. Leaving behind the boys in his racket and his fie-an-see Flo, it's off to Europe for a little culture. In a nifty montage directed by Don Siegel and future Hitchcock cinematographer Robert Burks, Johnny sees London, Paris, Monte Carlo, and the insides of his pockets as his pitiful money management skills cause him to go broke.

The sequence is very funny and well directed, but when we find out it was supposed to have encompassed five years, it's surprising. Having Johnny lose the cash he's saved up in that big of a timespan seems strangely anticlimactic. Awkwardness aside, the changes he encounters once back in the city are probably the reason for such a long absence, as the character returns to find his gang is being run by Jack Buck (Humphrey Bogart) and no longer needs him. His girl Flo (Ann Sothern) has also moved on. She now owns the night club he set her up in as a cigarette girl and has taken up with rich rube Clarence (Ralph Bellamy, playing a Ralph Bellamy-type) in a business-only partnership. Johnny wants his power and his girl back, but somehow ends up in a monastery milking cows and growing zinnias.

With unflashy direction from Lloyd Bacon and at least two acting performances of interest, the film does settle itself nicely under a heading of slick studio product. Robinson playing against type can be quite funny, and the actor completely sells it by staying straight as an arrow. No wink or acknowledging of how silly this guy is, or how tired Robinson must have been to be trotting out the same character for nearly a decade now. The performance and the role are both one-dimensional, but it works because of how Robinson plays with his gangster persona. His time at the monastery is especially humourous, where the monks have no concept of who this mysterious man is, but accept his "earthiness" without question. Again, Robinson completely sells it by embracing how ridiculous and dense Johnny is. The scene where he wakes up for the first time at the monastery is priceless, and the subtle humour found in his schemes there is perfectly executed by actor and director.

The other piece of acting in Brother Orchid that really stands out doesn't come from the third-billed Bogart, but actually is a memorable turn from Ann Sothern as Johnny's moll Flo. Sothern was contracted with MGM and loaned out to Warner Bros. to make this movie. She'd just done her first entry in the "Maisie" series the year before, but didn't really get parts as good as this at her home studio. As Flo, Sothern keeps us guessing. Is she really ditsy or really shrewd, loyal or just calculating? Plus she has perfect comic timing. "I haven't been to church since the night your brother was bumped off," she says to Johnny early on. Great line, delivered impeccably. On the other end of things, Bogart seems like he just wandered onto the set for a day or two. His character is integral to the plot, but the actor has nothing to do and makes little with the few scenes he does have. It's odd to imagine, but Bogart makes no impression whatsoever in this film. Only a year later, he was Sam Spade.

As a whole, the film's weaknesses aren't fatal, but the misuse of Bogart and the safe, unimaginative gangster angle cause it to plod familiar territory. Over half the running time is spent establishing Johnny's racketeering prior to the detour in Monkville. That portion doesn't know whether it wants to take itself seriously as a crime drama or go all out as gangster farce with Ralph Bellamy along for the ride as the world's stupidest rich guy. Despite Brother Orchid being more enjoyable overall, Robinson's earlier try at tough guy comedy, A Slight Case of Murder, also directed by Bacon, had better command of the appropriate tone to use throughout the picture. The two lead performances in this film save it, and the monastic angle elevates things past normal conventions. It also definitely could appeal to those who favour comedies over traditional movies in the gangster genre, but it's doubtful that Robinson's performance could be fully appreciated if you're unfamiliar with his more famous roles.

The Disc

Encoded for regions 1, 2, 3, and 4, Brother Orchid is transferred progressively on a dual-layered disc, and presented in the 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio. It is released both individually and as part of the Warner Bros. Gangsters Collection Vol. 3 (with Vol. 2 being newly retitled from its original incarnation as the Tough Guys set).

Since this is the most recent of the Gangsters Collection films, it should look the best and indeed it does. The transfer is crisp, with good detail. It's the cleanest of the lot, for sure, and has no significant damage. Blacks are fairly rich, especially in the night scene just before Robinson is found by the monks. The most obvious concerns are a bit of flickering and the usual levels of noise, which does look more like noise than grain here. Though the image possibly could be a little sharper, this is a solid enough effort that especially looks nice in comparison to the other films in the set.

Audio is the standard one-channel English Dolby Digital mono track. In contrast to the other, older films in Vol. 3, I heard no discernible hiss at all here. The sound is strong and consistent. Dialogue can be easily heard, and the track comes through nice and clear. Optional subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired and French. They are white in colour.

Brother Orchid's commentary track is by Edward G. Robinson biographer Alan L. Gansberg and Humphrey Bogart biographer Eric Lax. This is the sixth and final film in the Gangsters Collection Vol. 3 set that I've reviewed, and I've now disliked all four of the commentaries done by a pair of individuals. Something just doesn't mesh with hearing two people watch a movie together, talking to each other, instead of hearing someone talk more directly to the viewer. The bigger problem here is that they hardly say anything at all. Just as much time is spent listening to the movie again as hearing from the commentators. No mention is made of the montage being done by Don Siegel and Robert Burks. Byron Haskin, who did special effects for several films including Brother Orchid and went on to direct films such as I Walk Alone and Robinson Crusoe on Mars, is likewise never brought up. They also seem hesitant to talk over the film as though you can't just press a button and completely eliminate their voices. When they do speak, it's usually to point out the name and number of films made of a particular actor. As terrible as it sounds, the longer the film continues to play the more obvious it becomes that they really have little to contribute outside of a few anecdotes about Robinson and Bogart.

The Warner Night at the Movies supplement uses short subjects from 1940, starting off with a trailer for the Humphrey Bogart-Ann Sheridan film It All Came True (1:52). (How about a DVD of that one, Warner Bros.?) It's followed by a vintage newsreel (1:37) with famous faces including Edward G. Robinson and William Powell at a horse race. The first 30 seconds of the newsreel have no sound. A musical short sharply directed by Jean Negulesco, "Henry Busse and His Orchestra" (9:46) is next. The colour Merrie Melodies cartoon "Busy Bakers" (7:07, and the 1995 Turner Entertainment dubbed version), about a lonely baker whose shop is turned around after he gives a stale donut to a blind man, is one of two animated shorts on the disc. The second is billed as a Porky Pig Looney Tune, but he hardly figures in the story of "Slap Happy Pappy" (7:02), which is about a male chicken hoping his lady will have a male chick. The Bob Clampett cartoon features impressions of several entertainers like Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, and, for the main fowl, Eddie Cantor. The quality on the three shorts is pretty good, but "Busy Bakers" is noticeably interlaced. A theatrical trailer (1:44) for Brother Orchid finishes off the special features.

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