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Both Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart grumbled when they were assigned to Brother Orchid (1940) by Warner Brothers production executives. Robinson, who had reached stardom in a number of gangster roles since his breakthrough performance in Little Caesar (1930), was tired of playing bulldog-like criminals and mobsters. A classically trained actor from the New York stage, he began to expand his range on screen in such roles as The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) and the bio-pic Dr. Erhlich's Magic Bullet (1940), about the man who discovered the cure for syphilis. With Brother Orchid he saw only a return to the crime-picture grind. In a cordial letter to studio production chief Hal Wallis in late 1938, Robinson insisted his reluctance to take the role had nothing to do with dislike for the genre or "conceit or actor's temperament, but in order to do justice to my capabilities, as a whole." In the same letter, Robinson asked to be cast in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), a movie he wanted to make "for my people" (Robinson was Jewish). He was cast in that role but agreed to do Brother Orchid only after the studio promised him the lead in its upcoming production of The Sea Wolf (1941), based on Jack London's story. On the other hand, Humphrey Bogart, who hadn't yet made his breakthrough pictures High Sierra (1941) and The Maltese Falcon (1941), didn't have the power to wrangle a better deal and felt himself stuck playing another version of the thick, brutal lug he had been doing for years at the studio.
The end result, however, must have given them at least a little satisfaction, because Brother Orchid is a delightfully offbeat spoof that skillfully treads the line between gangster drama and comedy. Robinson is Johnny Sarto, a gangland boss who takes a sabbatical to Europe in search of some "class," leaving his rackets in the hands of underling Jack Buck (Bogart). But when Sarto returns home, he finds the ruthlessly ambitious Buck ensconced permanently in his place, unwilling to give it up. Organizing a new gang, Sarto attempts to muscle in on Buck's territory, but his none-too-bright girlfriend Flo inadvertently sets him up to be murdered. Taken for a ride by Buck's henchmen, Sarto is wounded but manages to escape through the woods to a secluded monastery. Nursed back to health by the kindly monks, Sarto decides the place is the perfect hideout while he plans his next move. At first trying to manipulate the situation to his best criminal advantage, he soon learns the value of the brothers' way of life and joins them in their commercial gardening pursuits, becoming a specialist in raising orchids. But when he learns the monastery is being prevented from selling flowers in the city by a protection racket headed by Buck, he swings into action, aided by his new companion Flo, a neighboring ranch owner.
As Flo, Ann Sothern brings a daffy charm and a voice like a mynah bird to her dim-witted moll role. The part almost wasn't hers. Wallis wanted studio contractee Lee Patrick (later Sam Spade's loyal secretary in The Maltese Falcon). Producer Mark Hellinger went over Wallis's head to Jack Warner and secured the part for Sothern. The picture was directed by Warners stalwart Lloyd Bacon, who was known for his speed and efficiency in production. "He did things so quickly that I once accused him of taking bribes," James Cagney once cracked. The director of 73 films at the studio, Bacon stunned everyone by surpassing even his own speed record by shooting 47 takes in one day on the biographical film Knute Rockne - All American (1940).
This was Bogart and Robinson's fourth co-starring venture. After this they didn't work together again for eight years, until their pairing in John Huston's dark thriller Key Largo (1948).
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Producer: Mark Hellinger, Hal B. Wallis
Screenplay: Earl Baldwin, from a story by Richard Connell
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Editing: William Holmes
Art Direction: Max Parker
Original Music: Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Johnny Sarto), Ann Sothern (Flo Addams), Humphrey Bogart (Jack Buck), Donald Crisp (Brother Superior), Ralph Bellamy (Clarence Fletcher), Allen Jenkins (Willie 'The Knife' Corson), Cecil Kellaway (Brother Goodwin).
BW-88m. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon