Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Brother Orchid (1940) and the Battle Between Selflessness and Selfishness

I'm going to Europe, see?

It's not easy being selfless in a society that rewards selfishness and promotes individualism. Take Little John Sarto (Edward G. Robinson) for instance. He's a top-notch gangster who has always gotten what he wanted by elbowing his way towards the big prize. He leads a group of gangsters, including Jack Buck (Humphrey Bogart), in a racket that coerces companies, both sellers and buyers, into joining "protection associations". If any buyer wants to buy from a seller, both parties have to be in the association. That means both parties have to kick back a fee to the association for this so-called "protection". What a great scam. Sarto needled his way into an already existing market and found a way to make money without doing anything other than intimidating people.

Check out that halo!

So when everyone turns on Sarto and he find himself badly injured and in front of a monastery, he is taken in by selfless, charitable men who want nothing but to see him get well. They want no compensation in any form. Just to see him heal. What's with this racket? How do they make a profit? They grow flowers, sell them, and any money leftover after overhead goes to charities. There is one particularly heartbreaking scene which I was hoping to provide as a clip to you but alas it was not meant to be. The brothers are giving Sarto (now Brother Orchid) a haircut when Brother Superior walks in and proclaims that he shall give all of the brothers a special treat since they earned 2 extra dollars off of their rose sales. They'll have watermelon for Thursday evening's dinner. Oh swell! Sarto/Orchid looks on with disdain. Watermelon? Big flipping deal. Then a young boy, shoeless and destitute walks in. The brothers take pity on him and give him the $2 for a new pair of shoes and scoff at the thought of watermelon. That scene just tore my heart right out of my chest.

Milking cows is an okay racket.

It also makes me terribly ashamed. I used to do a lot for other people but have become a bit battle hardened over time. For example, I used to go out with a group of friends to parties, dinners, and other outings. They would drink, I wouldn't and I would always try to drive the ones I could home to make sure they got there safe and sound. Even though it was out of my way, I would always offer and wouldn't take no for an answer. It would make me happy to be of help. However, most of those friends never did anything for me in return. They never pitched in for gas. They never offer me any means of transportation anywhere. And at one point I got fed up. I started to see them as leeches and instead of denying them rides, I started to refuse to go on outings altogether. How can I be like the monks? How can I offer kindness to others when all I see around me are opportunists? How can I get joy from simply helping out another person? I wish I could be like that again. I wish I could find what Brother Orchid did.

This film touched me in so many ways. It very quickly became a top favorite and I proceeded to watch it two more times, even though I have so many other films to watch. I couldn't put it in my Bogie marathon because this isn't about Bogie. It's about Edward G. Robinson's character. That's all that really matters.


  1. man oh man could i go into a looooong philosophic tirade on the points you brought up in this post but i wont, lol! anyway anything i say here is my own opinion and not me dising anyone else for how they wanna live as long as they dont mess with how i wanna live.
    not that i disagree with you on helping others. but i do not believe in "selflessness". my 'self', that is my self esteem, my self respect and my self worth are my supreme posessions. i value my time, my energy and my ideas and only offer them to those that value them as well. your reaction to those "friends" of yours is totally natural, i am a bit sad that you feel ashamed to not want to help people like that. what earthly reason have they given you to want to help them in the first place? this is a huge problem in our society where "need" is often touted as the only justification neccessary for someone to do something for someone else. they needed a safe ride home, therefore you should give them one and if you dont, you should feel "bad", i.e. "guilty" for not doing it. weather they appreciate it, return your favor or even just simply say thank you is irrelevent according to most of the doctrines of today. you should do it out of charity and if you dont you're immoral. when helping others is touted as a moral obligation and not an indivudual choice, the seeds are sewn for unearned guilt.
    i think possibly you found out that they werent really your 'friends' after all yes?

    ok i went on longer than i thought, but still its way shorter than it could've been, lol. hope i didnt offend anyone.

    i love that film too. its a sweet story and Eddie G shows his amazing range as an actor. the poster for this film is one of the best characterizations of him i've ever seen, its classic!

  2. I think to a degree selflessness has yet to die out completely in the United States. It still exists here in the South, although sadly it is not as common as it once was. I think much of the problem is that our society seems to reward selfishness more than selflessness. The greedy corporate executive is likely to get a pat on the back before someone who constantly works for the benefit of his community without expecting anything in return. Of course, the flaw with this sort of thinking is that ultimately if society is to survive, then there must be a good deal of common charity. By helping those who cannot help themselves, we ultimately help ourselves.

  3. You surely like Edward Robinson here?? ~_~ me too. He is best remembered for his roles as a gangster.

  4. I have to agree with Terry over Paul. I think maybe I should have talked more about kindness rather than selflessness. I think the problem with our society is that we don't encourage 1) the act of kindness and 2) returning kindness with kindness. People don't appreciate kindness as much anymore. Kind of like my friends. I think they just viewed me as a pushover. Or someone they could take advantage of. They are good people but inherently selfish. I wish they could see that kind acts should beget kind acts. I don't think being selfish or selectively selfless is really the answer. I think that just spurs on more selfishness from other people.

    It's also a little bit to do with where I live. People in the Boston area are cold, stuck-up, aggressive, have no joie-de-vivre, are suspicious of other's motives and downright selfish. I wouldn't encourage anyone to live here if they had an open mind and warm heart. They would be destroyed here.

    Elgart - Edward G. Robinson is a gangster in this movie too.

  5. now THAT i can agree with Quelle! i always say "how hard is it to be nice?" but for a lot of people it seems to be very hard indeed. rudeness is certainly rampant now with cell phones and texting, no one seems to pay any attenion to the real person in front of them anymore. common courtesy and kindness are a lost art and its sad cuz it doesnt have to be that way.


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