Wednesday, March 26, 2008

BROTHER ORCHID (Warner Bros. 1940) Warner Home Video

Based on Richard Connell’s witty short story first serialized in Collier’s Magazine, Lloyd Bacon’s Brother Orchid (1940) is a fascinating hybrid (some critics have considered it a spoof) of the Warner crime/melodrama. The studio’s film product of the early 1930’s had been primarily trademarked by its gritty realism with storylines ripped directly from newspaper headlines.

However, with the advent of the Film Production Code in 1934, Warner Bros. was suddenly faced with a gross dilemma; how to continue to utilize the bulk of their stars that had been their bread and butter during the first half of the decade. Indeed, names like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson could no longer be celebrated as the kingpins of crime. To retain their supremacy at the box office something drastic had to be done with their on screen persona – making it more palpable under the code.

Hence, from 1935 onward Warner’s crime dramas acquired an increasingly more gentile palette that became more prone to poking fun at itself by the end of the ‘30s. Brother Orchid is of this latter ilk – though, this reviewer would contend that the film’s true resilience lays in its powerful depiction of the reformation of its central character, Little John T. Sarto (Edward G. Robinson); a racketeer grown tired of commanding the most successful mob in New York City at the start of the film.

Determined to turn over a new leaf, Sarto hands over daily operation of his ‘business’ to his right hand, Jack Buck (Humphrey Bogart). He bids his female play-thing, Flo Addams (Ann Sothern) and simple-minded bodyguard, Willie ‘The Knife’ Corson (Allen Jenkins) a fond farewell before embarking on a whirlwind tour of Europe. Unfortunately, for Sarto – his motto of ‘easy come/easy go’ does not bode well with the decadence of Paris, Rome, London and Monte Carlo. In no time, Sarto has bankrupted himself and is forced to return home to reassume control over his rackets.

Unhappy circumstance, that Jack is not willing to let bygones be bygones. Instead, Sarto is thrown out on his ear. Sarto’s first line of recourse - to stiff Flo’ for some quick cash that will jumpstart a new organization – is stalemated after Sarto learns of his fiancée’s pending flirtations with dim-witted Texan, Clarence P. Fletcher (Ralph Bellamy). For her part, Flo’ still loves Sarto just as much as ever – perhaps more so, now that he has returned to discover her a successful proprietor of the swanky nightclub she once hat checked at.

In her innocence, Flo’ attempts to broker a truce between Sarto and Jack that results in the former narrowly escaping assassination at the hands of a couple of Jack’s thugs. Sarto collapses at the gate of a monastery run by benevolent monks fronted by Brother Superior (Donald Crisp). The monks restore Sarto – whom they rechristen ‘Brother Orchid’ to health and are thereafter amazed when their protégée takes to his new vocation as though he were born for the work.

Determined to avenge himself on all who double-crossed him, Sarto returns to his former life only to discover that Flo has now become engaged to Clarence and that Jack is in total control of the rackets. However, when Jack’s ‘protection’ threatens to exclude the monks from selling their flowers in the city market square, Sarto suffers an attack of conscience – returning to his chosen calling as Brother Orchid; a man who discovers that the ‘class’ and refinement he has been seeking all his life is not to be found in one man’s capital gains but in the many hearts one man may touch with random acts of human kindness.

Robinson is superb as the deposed thug and fallen crime idol who rediscovers new reasons to rejoice that do not require muscle or money. Donald Crisp delivers an angelic performance stripped of any cheaply religious hyperbole. Bogart – still cast in the part of the cutthroat – is convincingly menacing. This is a great film – one that tickles the funny bone regularly and occasionally manages to warm the heart. A must have!

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is very solid. The B&W image exhibits a refined gray scale with exceptional tonality. Occasionally, age related artifacts and film grain intrude but will surely not distract. Blacks are a tad weaker than expected. Whites are slightly blooming. Still, this is a very solid and smooth transfer. The audio is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include a litany of shorts, news reels and other junket materials under the ‘Warner Night At the Movies’ banner, plus an informative audio commentary by Alan I. Gansberg and Eric Lax. Highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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