Brother Superior: When the heart speaks, Brother Orchid, other hearts must listen.
Brother Orchid (1940)
Interested in seeing a screwball comedy-film noir gangster-western-religious flick? I am always on the lookout for oddball films for Advent and they don’t come odder, or more heart warming, than Brother Orchid (1940). Starring Edward G. Robinson with a fantastic supporting cast including Humphrey Bogart, Ann Southern, Ralph Bellamy and Donald Crisp, it is a trip back to the Golden Age of Hollywood when literate, thoughtful films were considered mass entertainment. It also is a fine exponent of a facet of the human condition that is not much commented upon today: the seductive power of goodness. A review of the film is below with the usual caveat as to spoilers.
Originally the role of Brother Orchid was to be filled by James Cagney. Instead the role went to another actor who achieved stardom from gangster roles: Edward G. Robinson. The son of Jewish immigrants from Romania, Robinson was frequently cast as an Italian-American and so it was in this movie. Little John Sarto is the head of a protection racket. The film opens with a meeting between him and his chief lieutenants. His second in command, Jack Buck, portrayed in a surly fashion by Humphrey Bogart, has bumped off a competitor. Sarto is annoyed, viewing murder as being bad for business. He resigns, saying that he is going off to Europe in search of “real class”. All of this is light in tone, indicating the screwball comedy element of this polyglot film. The exception is Humphrey Bogart, who plays his role straight and menancing. It is almost as if Bogart was in a separate film. It is odd, but effective.
Prior to his leaving for Europe he meets with his longtime girl friend Flo Adams, played as delightfully ditzy by Ann Sothern who never got as many roles in comedies as her considerable comedic skills warranted:
Flo Addams: Johnny, wait a minute. I want you to carry this with you.
Little Johnny Sarto: What is it?
Flo Addams: It’s a rabbit’s foot. A lucky charm. My uncle wore it for 32 years.
Little Johnny Sarto: A lucky charm, eh? Where’d you get it?
Flo Addams: From my mother. With her own hand she took it off of my uncle after they hung him.
Flo wants to get married and accompany Sarto to Europe. Sarto begs off the marriage hint and gets her a job as a hatcheck girl while he is in Europe.
Off to Europe he goes for five years and manages to be swindled by every con artist on the continent. The film shows this as a result of Sarto’s attempt to gain class by buying items: the largest diamond in the world that turns out to be a doorknob, the swiftest horse in the word that turns out to be a nag, etc. Frustrated and broke, Sarto returns to the US planning to resume his position at the head of the protection racket.
Times have changed while he was away. His old gang is now run by Jack Buck who wastes no time in telling Sarto that he is through, and that if Sarto attempts to topple Buck, Buck will take care of him permanently. His girl is now the owner of the nightclub where Sarto got her a job as a hatcheck girl, thanks to an investment by her platonic cattle baron boyfriend Clarence Fletcher, played by Ralph Bellamy in the oddest bit of casting in his long career. Sarto reassembles a mob and begins to successfully cut in on his old protection racket. His downfall comes when his girlfriend Flo attempts to play peacemaker with Buck, leading to the capture of Sarto, and his being shot and left for dead in a marsh. He manages to reach a monastery where he is nursed back to health.
The monastery is a “Floracian Monastery” and the monks are known as little brothers of the flowers. They raise flowers and sell them in the city to support their charitable activities. Richard Connell, who wrote the short story on which the movie was based, based his fictional monks on a Dominican monastery.
When he first awakens Sarto says, “I made it!”, thinking he has died and gone to heaven. The monk taking care of him, a former prize fighter, disabuses him of that notion. The reaction of the fictional Sarto was typical of Catholic gangsters of the period. Bad men as they were, most of them had no doubt of the Truth of what the Church taught, even if they did not live by it. Sarto quickly realizes that the monastery can offer him a safe haven for the time being and writes to a member of his gang stating that he is safe among the biggest bunch of chumps in the world. He takes the name of Brother Orchid.
After he is at the monastery for a while Sarto begins to change his mind about the monks being chumps. He sees them giving away two dollars to buy shoes for a child, money that was originally going to be used to buy watermelon as a treat for the monks. He is told that the only true happiness in the world is doing good for others, and he admits that there might be something to this. Against his will, Sarto begins to change. All his life he has been searching for something, and he is beginning to realize that, incredibly, he has found it at the monastery.
His old protection gang prevents the monks from selling flowers and Sarto leaves the monastery to set this right, which he does in a hilarious sequence, aided by Clarence Fletcher and his cowboy friends! After convincing Clarence that he is a heel, he clears the path for Clarence to marry Flo, Sarto realizing that his place is back in the monastery. On his way to the monastery, in a moving scene, he gives his last $300.00 to a char lady. He asks her if she has any kids. She looks up from the floor she has been scrubbing, and staring at Sarto with sad, pain-filled eyes says, “No. I ain’t got nothing.” Sarto tells her, well, now you have something and to her astonished joyful disbelief hands her the $300.00. The movie ends with Brother Orchid rejoining his fellow monks, telling them that all his life he has been looking for class, and that he has found it with them.
Criminals joining monasteries to repent for their lives of crime was not uncommon in the Middle Ages. One infamous highwayman was about to stab a victim when he heard a monastery’s bells, dropped his knife and went to join the monks. Looking at all the evil in the world it is possible to forget the power of grace on the most unlikely men and women. Exposure to the good and selfless can sometimes have a vast impact on people who have led empty lives of selfishness. The Dicken’s fable of A Christmas Carol tells a very old truth: true happiness comes only for selfless devotion to others, a truth that Brother Orchid learned. Richard Connell, the author of Brother Orchid, displayed that same selflessness in his own life, allowing Catholic University of America, gratis, to write, Leo Brady was the author, and perform a play, Brother Orchid, based upon his short story, before the movie came out. Brother Orchid, a great movie to watch as we celebrate the coming of Him who is selfless love incarnate.