“All my life I was such a guy looking for class. I once went halfway around the world trying to find it because I thought that class was in dough, nice clothes and society. Well, I was wrong.” – Little John Sarto
Yes, Brother Orchid is considered a crime drama, but from where I’m sitting, that’s not an accurate description. It’s not a romance or a comedy either as it’s sometimes listed, though there are elements of all of these things in the movie. No, Brother Orchid is so much more than this. Yes, there are gangsters here, but, at least in the case of Edward G. Robinson‘s, Johnny Sarto he’s one with a much bigger…purer…need in his heart than running a “racket” and building a bank account. He just doesn’t realize it.
Brother Orchid stars Robinson, Ann Sothern and Humphrey Bogart, and features others we recognize too, like Donald Crisp and Ralph Bellamy. This film takes us on the journey with Johnny to find the happiness that he curiously describes as “real class.” It was directed by Lloyd Bacon for Warner brothers and is based on a story by Richard Connell that appeared in a May, 1938 issue of Collier’s Magazine.
John Sarto is the mob boss of a successful “racket” when he announces to his men that he’s leaving it all behind and putting Jack Buck (Bogart) in charge for good. He tells them he’s in search of “real class” and that he’s leaving for Europe right away to find it.
Before he leaves, Johnny has a heart-to-heart talk with his long time girlfriend, Flo. She’s crazy in love with Johnny and lets him use her in anyway he wants to, just so she can keep him. She desperately wants to marry him after years of “going with” him, but he couldn’t care less. He doesn’t even consider taking her with him and she’s devastated. To make it up to her, because he does like her to be at his beck and call, he calls a friend and sets her up with a job as a cigarette girl at the Crescent night club. This
satisfies thrills her and gets her out of his hair so he can get on with his travels
Johnny spends the next five years traipsing all over Europe in search of that “real class.” But he does everything the same old way – He spends money on nice clothes, restaurants and all things that can get him into high-end society…he even buys a race horse. In the end, he’s broke and the feeling of “real class”…happiness…still eludes him. He gives up and heads back to the city to take his mob back.
The old gang, especially Jack Buck, is not gonna let that happen. He loves being in charge and nothing is going to change that now. Johnny could not believe his old gang was disowning him. None of his former “men” would entertain leaving Buck to go back to the way things were. He was crushed.
“I’m gonna organize a new mob and show you guys.” – Johnny says in a panic.
He went to find good ole’ reliable Flo at the Crescent club where he left her five years before. As it turns out, Flo had borrowed money from Clarence Fletcher (Bellamy), a Montana rancher who was in the club one night, to buy the Crescent club outright. In her typically needy, dimwit way, she tries to help Johnny and Jack get back together and start up the old “racket” so everyone could live happily ever after. Buck plays along with her to get Johnny to meet him, but his intention is really to kill him. Buck takes Johnny for a ride at gunpoint and sends him into the woods with his men where they were to shoot him.
Johnny escapes by slapping a branch in their faces as they walked through the woods. While they recovered, he ran as hard as he could. He’s broken down and hurt, but not shot, when he runs straight on to the front porch of a monastery.
Brother Superior (Crisp) takes him in and nurses him back to health. Johnny was about to discover the “real class” he was aching to achieve.
Brother Orchid is the guide that Johnny didn’t have and needed. Once he meets the monks at the monastery, the movie becomes full of the challenges that occur as Johnny starts to feel the change in attitude he didn’t know he needed. He even backtracks to his old life for a second time before it becomes clear that he’s been going about his quest for “real class” the wrong way. Johnny’s experiences are truly inspiring and thought-provoking: Is it really money and status that prove we’re successful? What lengths will we go to get them? How many people will we hurt? Are money and status really the things that guarantee happiness?
Or, is pure happiness accomplished from helping people instead of running over them to gain money and things that simply never satisfy us? Johnny finally gets it. Watching him get to this realization, seeing the tension leave his face and the happiness appear is what makes this movie feel so good to watch. The meaning of the evolution of Johnny is really what this movie is about.
“I thought I was being smart. I guess I wasn’t.” – Johnny Sarto
“All my life I was such a guy looking for class. I once went halfway around the world trying to find it because I thought that class was in dough, nice clothes and society. Well I was wrong. I sure traveled a long way to find out one thing. This. This is the real class.” – Little John Sarto says as he enters the monastery for the last time, with a smile we didn’t see until now…the one that explains it all.