"Brother Orchid", has always been a film I have greatly enjoyed on a number of different levels. It is one of the few attempts by Warner Brothers, who made the Gangster genre their own in the 1930's, to show another side to such a story so here we get a most unusual combination of hard nosed story telling typical of Warners, alongside a sentimental and quite comical story detailing one conman's search for "class" and "style" in his world.
"Brother Orchid", provided Edward G. Robinson with one of his most appealing roles as Little Johnny Sarto a big time racketeer who grows tired of the gangland goings on he has presided over for too long, and tries to quit the scene to pursue his quest for real class and refinement in life. After an abortive trip to Europe Johnny finds his old haunts and collegues are no longer welcoming and soon he finds himself pursued by ruthless thug and former employee Jack Buck (Humphrey Bogart in one of his last bad guy supporting roles before his real stardom kicked in the next year). Supposedly set up with a reconciliation meeting with Jack by his kind hearted girlfriend "Flo" Adams (Ann Sothern in a delightful performance) Johnny finds himself a marked man and narrowly escapes being murdered after Jack's boys take him out into the woods to finish him off. Escaping wounded Johnny finds his way to a secluded Monastery where he is taken in by the kindly monks and brought back to health. Along the way Johnny learns a few things about life and what he regarded as initially an ideal hideout till he could plot his revenge against Jack turns into a life changing experience and the one time hood becomes the placid life appreciating "Brother Orchid". Despite the chance of reclaiming his turf Johnny sees that Flo really deserves better than what he can offer and steps aside so that she can marry the decent but dull farmer Clarence P. Fletcher who worships the ground Flo walks on. With that done Johnny returns to the monastery where he at last finds the real "class" in life, not in posessions or money but in the company of decent, honest men who have their own class simply by who and what they are not what they can get.
A highly improbable story perhaps but done in such an expert way and delivered with such sincerity by the cast that one can't help but believe what is going on. What was originally viewed as merely a "fill in" project for Edward G. Robinson so that he could then move on to the lead role in "Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet" turned into a smashing success and his most successful film for a couple of years. The story really reveals Robinson's great abilities in both comedy and hard edged drama. His transformation from hard boiled racketeer to endearing orchid growing monk is a delight to behold and never once do we doubt the sincerity of his playing. It is very interesting to see Humphrey Bogart performing his small time hood role again which was a character that he had played countless times during his 1930's apprenticeship with Warner Brothers. He is in turn tough and mean and provides most of the dramatic side to this unusual tale. Veteran character actress Ann Sothern is terrific as the typical gangsters moll with the heart of gold and she proves once and for all what a fine actress she could be given a role with some dimension. Her drunk scene when she tries to get Johnny to come to "Fat Dutchy's" Tavern to meet Jack is priceless. Veteran character actor Donald Crisp has a superb role as Brother Superior who takes the wounded Johnny into his monastery and heals him physically and morally as well. Most of the beautiful sentiment in the story of "Brother Orchid" comes from Donald Crisp's playing of the patient, saintly, but still world wise head of the monastic order who points out the errors of Johnny's views on life and people. A superb actor in many fine films Crisp is in his element in this comical and heart warming tale of one man's redemption.
It is really hard to place "Brother Orchid", is any one film category, part comedy, part redemption tale, part crime saga, it is an odd mixture of many different kinds of films we are used to seeing. I feel it is this odd mix which makes the film so appealing and all the very different types of acting styles and personas also make it a unique viewing experience. To see acting greats like Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sothern and Donald Crisp in the one film makes me lament the lack of this kind of star power in modern film stories. All had their own set screen personas which they lovingly spoofed in "Brother Orchid". For an uplifting viewing experience from Warner Brother's golden period of film making you are certain to enjoy Edward G. Robinson is one of his more off beat roles as "Brother Orchid".