By the 1930s most moviegoers came to know certain of the major studios for the kinds of movies they specialized in. Disney made cartoons, Universal had their monster flicks, MGM had the musicals, and so on. Warner Bros. back then was best known for its gangster films. So it comes as no surprise that WB have now given us four complete DVD packages of their best gangster movies of the period (counting their “Tough Guys Collection”), this one under review called the “Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection, Volume 3,” and containing six more feature films.
For those folks not interested in the complete set, all six of the six movies in the box are also available separately. The movies include “Smart Money” (1931), directed by Alfred E. Green and starring Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney as cronies in the barbering and gambling business; “Lady Killer” (1933), directed by Roy Del Ruth and starring Cagney as an ex-con who tries to keep his past a secret as he pursues a career in Hollywood; “Picture Snatcher” (1933), directed by Lloyd Bacon and starring Cagney, this time as an ex-con using his know-how to get daring snapshots, like that of a woman in the electric chair; “The Mayor of Hell” (1933), directed by Archie Mayo and starring Cagney as a tough guy who takes an interest in the way kids are mistreated at a reform school; “Black Legion” (1936), directed by Archie Mayo and starring Humphrey Bogart becoming involved with a white-supremacist group; and the film I’ll discuss here, “Brother Orchid” (1940).
Most of the films in the collection are top-notch, even though not everybody today may recognize the titles, but I chose to concentrate on “Brother Orchid” because it’s a film I remember best from my childhood, watching it on TV as a kid in the 1950s. It’s part of a trio of satiric films Edward G. Robinson made spoofing his roles as a tough guy in Warner Bros. pictures. The other two films in the Robinson trio are “A Slight Case of Murder” (1938) and “Larceny, Inc.” (1942), with Lloyd Bacon directing all three.
Of the three aforementioned send-ups, I like “Brother Orchid” best. It nicely combines a gentle humor with a touch of sweetness that makes it a delight. In the story, Robinson plays Little Johnny Sarto, a big-shot hoodlum who bosses a gang of protection racketeers. He wants to quit the rackets, though, and become respectable, so he heads off on a world tour for five years to gain class, learn refinement, and eventually join high society. All he does is get taken to the cleaners by hucksters who sell him antique trash, and he winds up broke and eager to come home.
But home ain’t what it used to be. He figures he can just take over where he left off, heading up his old gang, but in his absence his second-in-command, Jack Buck (Humphrey Bogart), has taken over, and Buck’s not about to let Johnny muscle in on him. Even Johnny’s old girl, Flo Adams (Ann Southern), has a new beau, a wealthy rancher from out West, Clarence P. Fletcher (Ralph Bellamy). Poor Johnny; it looks like he’s out in the cold.
Still, Johnny Sarto doesn’t give up easily. He finds a loyal old crony, Willie “The Knife” Corson (Allen Jenkins), rounds up a few other of the boys, and declares war on Buck. In the second half of the movie, Flo’s makes a monumentally dumb move, and Johnny winds up next to dead. He’s taken in by the monks of a secluded monastery, and there he learns a new way of life.
The chaps who pick up Johnny and care for him belong to the Monastery of the Little Brothers of the Flowers. Their philosophy is “Be poor in purse, pure in heart, kind in word and deed, and beautify the lives of men with flowers.” They support themselves by growing and selling flowers, a chore the hard-nosed Johnny learns to love. They ask no questions, only serve, and require nothing in return. It’s a hard thing for Johnny to understand. At least at first. Johnny calls himself “Brother Orchid.”
The film is just as charming as I remembered it from fifty years ago, just as funny, and just as sentimental, the cast playing the story perfectly straight, which makes much of it all the funnier. Apparently, the motion-picture industry was trying to tone down its use of violence in films by this time, so this and the previous two Robinson spoofs were perfect opportunities for Warner Bros. to show the world they could do more than make gangster movies about people killing people. Robinson plays essentially the same character he did in “Little Caesar” but without the hard edge. Although Little John Sarto is the good side of Little Caesar Enrico Bandello, Robinson never betrays a hint of such “goodness” until we actually see it and experience it. Robinson was a much underestimated performer.
Among the supporting cast we have Ann Southern as the gangster’s moll, and like everyone else in the film, she’s perfect. The actress had just begun a string of movies as the showgirl Maisie Ravier, a series for which she became quite well known. Furthermore, fans of old movies will instantly recognize the face and voice of character actor Allen Jenkins, who usually played a humorous sidekick, an amusing acquaintance, or, as here, a comical hood. Bogart is the one character in the film who is thoroughly rotten, a kind of role Bogie would play for another year until “The Maltese Falcon” made him a bona-fide star and romantic lead. Ralph Bellamy as the cowboy always seemed to play the second-banana, the guy who never got the girl; and as the head of the monastery, we have Donald Crisp, everybody’s favorite father figure.
For a guy who always looked for and worked the angles in life, Johnny Sarto doesn’t take to the new life of the monastery quickly, and it takes a while for a new attitude to set in. That’s rather the way the movie works, too. It grows on you and settles in.
The 1.33:1 black-and-white screen image comes up nicely in another of WB’s exemplary transfers. The B&W contrasts look fresh and alive, the whites pure and the black levels deep. These contrasts enhance definition, which is quite good, and there’s hardly an age spot, fleck, line, or scratch anywhere to detract the eye. You might notice a very fine film grain, natural to any picture, but it’s nothing. The black-and-white photography is quite striking, actually, and quite well presented.
The sound is monaural, done up in Dolby Digital 1.0 processing. It’s a good mono, as far as that goes–clean, clear, and quiet. You won’t find any wide-ranging dynamics here, roaring bass, or window-shattering impact–just smooth midrange, upper bass, and lower treble response that caresses the ear.
All of the films in the collection contain one or more of the following: an audio commentary, a “Warner Night at the Movies,” a vintage newsreel, a vintage short subject, a classic cartoon, and an original theatrical trailer. In addition, they all contain a generous number of scene selections (but no chapter insert), English as the only spoken language, English and French subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Specific to “Brother Orchid,” there are several entertaining items. First, there is an excellent commentary by Edward G. Robinson biographer Alan Gansberg and Humphrey Bogart biographer Eric Lax, whose banter is fun and informative. Next, there is a theatrical trailer for “Brother Orchid.” And, lastly, there is a Warner Night at the Movies” that includes a trailer for “It All Came True”; a vintage newsreel of Robinson at the racetrack; a nine-minute vintage musical short subject, “Henry Busse and His Orchestra”; and two cartoons from 1940, “Busy Bakers,” a Merrie Melodies in Technicolor, and “Slap Happy Pappy,” a Looney Tunes in black-and-white with Porky Pig.
Although the titles Warner Bros. include in their latest series of old “Gangster” movies may not be among their most well known, they are no less good than in previous collections. Every fan will have his or her favorite, of course, but for me “Brother Orchid” in particular has weathered the test of time, and, as I’ve said, it comes off as humorously and as touchingly as I remember it all those years ago.