Black Orchid [1958]

The third volume of the Warner Gangsters Collection can be heartily endorsed--just so you emphasize the "Warner" and go light on the "Gangsters." Warner Bros. was the feistiest studio in 1930s Hollywood and these movies exemplify its street savvy, proletarian gutsiness, and drive. Warners was also home to the classic gangster cycle, from Little Caesar and The Public Enemy through The Roaring Twenties (all included in Volume 1)--but none of the six films in Volume 3 bears more than a tangential connection to that cycle. Yes, every picture boasts one or more of Warner Bros.' "Murderers Row" stars: Edward G. Robinson toplines in two of the half-dozen films, Humphrey Bogart is featured in two, and James Cagney skitters through no fewer than four. And there's lashings of lawbreaking, raffishness, and tough talk--albeit a lamentable shortage of tommy guns. But Brother Orchid is a gangster spoof, the Cagney vehicles feature scalawags rather than mobsters, and the "gang" in Black Legion, although dangerous and despicable, has nothing to do with organized crime. The best movies of the bunch fall farthest from the gangster family tree. Picture Snatcher (1933) is exemplary early Cagney, 77 hard-charging minutes with the favorite son of the Lower East Side as a brash ex-con determined to go straight. How straight is a delicate question, since his job is scoring sensational photos for a raunchy tabloid. Picture Snatcher was made before the Production Code cast its puritanical shadow over Hollywood, and the script features two memorably morbid sequences--Cagney's debut as a literal picture snatcher, and the snapping of a clandestine prison-death-house photo--as well as abundant opportunities for risqué byplay, gallows humor, and freewheeling amorality. Lloyd Bacon (soon to direct Cagney in Footlight Parade) makes yeoman work of it all, even getting away with scenes in the newspaper's restroom, and staging a last-reel shootout ferocious enough to be worthy of a real gangster movie. Humphrey Bogart wasn't yet a star when he appeared in Black Legion (1937), but among his pre-High Sierra assignments at Warners, here's a rare one in which he doesn't play second or third fiddle to Robinson, Cagney, and/or Pat O'Brien. It's a surprisingly powerful social-consciousness fable, in the muckraking tradition of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Bogart plays a working-class family man with his eye on promotion to factory foreman; when the job goes instead to a co-worker with a foreign-sounding name, Bogart's character--basically a decent guy--gets drawn into a secret, Ku Klux Klan-like organization espousing "America for Americans" and ready to stomp anyone deemed less than "real 100-percent American." (Such groups weren't exactly rare at the time, as the commentary track details--nor are their sentiments unfamiliar today.) Robert Lord's original screen story was Oscar nominated, and the screenplay is careful to make Bogart's actions understandable and also to create a whole community of characters affected by the Black Legion's atrocities. The finale is uncompromising, with a last shot like a fist to the chest. Archie Mayo directed; Bogart's fellow name-below-the-title players include Erin O'Brien-Moore (impressive as his wife), Dick Foran, Joe Sawyer, and future star Ann Sheridan in her first Warners film. Edward G. Robinson spent a lot of his Warner years resisting Little Caesar typecasting, and Smart Money (1931) is a fascinating case in point. Although the story of "Nick the Barber" recalls elements of Robinson's starmaking hit, the actor insisted on script modifications so that Nick, a compulsive gambler, emerges as a sympathetic character--and a fatally soft touch where women are concerned. His itinerary takes him from small-town barbershop with an after-hours game in the back to operating his own swank casino in the big city, but he never comes off as a criminal except by prissy legal technicality. Directed by Alfred E. Green, the movie marks the sole occasion of Robinson and Cagney working together. Really, it's Robinson's picture--though Jimmy the Gent outshines him in a classic scene where they discuss a woman's attributes ... in mime. In Lloyd Bacon's Brother Orchid (1940), it's Bogart who's relegated to supporting status while Robinson plays "Little John" Sarto, a comic variant of guess-who who decides to retire as mob boss and pursue "class" by collecting art in Europe (an inside joke on Robinson's real-life standing as art connoisseur?). After blowing his fortune, Sarto attempts to reclaim his old job, which his former lieutenant (Bogart) isn't about to give up. Taken for the proverbial ride, Little John escapes and finds shelter among the Floracians, a monastic order devoted to "beautifying the lives of men with flowers." Thus is "Brother Orchid" set on the path to spiritual rebirth--after settling some old business, of course. Robinson agreed to make this gangland comedy if Warners let him star in a pair of historical biopics, Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet and A Dispatch from Reuter's--his own pursuit of class, perhaps. It was a good deal all around. Brother Orchid also features Ann Sothern as Sarto's patient moll, Ralph Bellamy in one of his trademark amiable-sap roles, Donald Crisp and Cecil Kellaway among the horticultural monks, and a funny, Runyonesque screenplay by Earl Baldwin. The final entries, two more from Jimmy Cagney's busy year of 1933, both suffer from weak scripts. Archie Mayo's The Mayor of Hell focuses on the plight of inner-city youth sent to reform schools where they're more likely to be destroyed than rehabilitated. We get a full two reels of setup (featuring troubled lad Frankie Darro, soon to star in Wild Boys of the Road) before Cagney shows up 24 minutes in, as a political hack whose newly won sinecure of "deputy commissioner" includes token responsibility for Peakstown State Reformatory. A former slum kid himself, he evolves from "What do I have to do to make things look regular?" to taking an active interest in his charges, at the mercy of a warden (Dudley Digges) who's both corrupt and sadistic. An absurdly pain-free revolution reforms Hell for a fleeting moment, till a subplot involving Cagney's larcenous interests sidelines him and opens the way for a violent and anarchic climax. Roy Del Ruth's Lady Killer is much lighter fare, with Cagney as a movie-theater usher who falls victim to a con game, then joins in the scam and soon is running the outfit. When one ornate caper results in a bystander getting hurt, Cagney has to hop a train two steps ahead of the law. At the other end of those train tracks is Hollywood, where he catches the eye of someone from Central Casting who thinks he'd make a good gangster type in the movies. Full-fledged stardom is only a reel change away--whereupon that old gang of his comes sniffing around. Some of this is diverting, some is just sloppy; the film gives the impression of having had different writers assigned from scene to scene. However, the satiric jabs at Hollywood are fun, and Cagney, as always, has his lyric moments. All the films in the set look spiffy, and each comes with a "Warner Night at the Movies" package of cartoons, trailers, and sometimes other short subjects. The full-length commentary tracks range from fanboy blither (Picture Snatcher, alas) to authoritative testimony, with Anthony Slide and Patricia King Hanson offering socio-historical insights on Black Legion and veteran noiristes Alain Silver and James Ursini paying close attention to matters of style and nuance on Smart Money (though one of them twice misstates that the Hawks-Hughes Scarface was made at Universal). --Richard T. Jameson

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