Friday, March 14, 2014

Body and Soul (1947)

John Garfield giving his testimony before HUAC, April 23, 1951

BODY AND SOUL        A-                 
USA  (104 mi)  1947  d:  Robert Rossen

Money’s got no conscience, Charlie.  Here, take it.       —Roberts (Lloyd Gough)

According to film critic Jim Hoberman, author of several books and longtime critic for The Village Voice, BODY AND SOUL (47) is the most Jewish film released between THE JAZZ SINGER (1927) and THE PRODUCERS (1967), where more communists worked on this movie than any other American film, described as the product of the most concentrated leftist radical energy ever seen in Hollywood, released shortly before the House Un-American Activities Committee held nine days of hearings in October 1947 into alleged communist propaganda and influence in the Hollywood motion picture industry.  This was precipitated by a July 29, 1946 column entitled “A Vote for Joe Stalin” written by William R. Wilkerson, publisher and founder of The Hollywood Reporter, who provided a list of alleged communists and their sympathizers.  Drawing upon the list, which included 43 subpoenaed names, 19 of whom refused to testify, leading to ten writers and directors known as the Hollywood Ten who were cited for contempt of Congress and immediately fired the next day by the studios, creating a Hollywood blacklist on November 25, 1947.  Eventually more than 300 artists, including directors, radio commentators, actors, and most notably screenwriters were blacklisted by the studios in hearings that lasted into the early 1950’s.  While the blacklist was rarely made explicit or verifiable, it directly damaged the careers of scores of individuals working in the motion picture industry, some of whom left the country to find work elsewhere, while some worked under aliases, and others remained out of work for over a decade.  The blacklist was rooted in events of the 30’s during the Great Depression when two major industry strikes increased tensions between the producers and the unions, particularly the Screen Writers Guild, which came under attack by the House Un-American Activities Committee for the radical leanings of many of its members, which escalated in 1947 when more than a dozen writers were called to testify.  Among the films scrutinized by the committee were Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), something of a surprise, and Edward Dmytryk’s CROSSFIRE (1947), a searing portrait of anti-Semitism, where Dmytryk is one of the Hollywood Ten.  While there was a wartime alliance against Hitler and Nazi Germany between the United States and the Soviet Union, postwar perceptions changed, with communists increasingly coming under fire, becoming a focus of American fears and hatred.  Of interest, in 2012, in a 65th anniversary article, Wilkerson’s son apologized for the newspaper’s role in the blacklist, claiming his father was motivated by revenge for his own thwarted ambition to own a studio.  The committee was always looking for a big named Hollywood star to provide an exclamation point to their work, placing much of their emphasis on John Garfield who was called before the HUAC committee in 1951.

John Garfield was born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Russian Jewish immigrants in a poor, working class neighborhood where communists were not unusual and were simply part of the everyday landscape, joining Lee Strasberg’s New York-based Group Theater before moving to Hollywood in the late 30’s where he became associated with gritty, hard-nosed, and working-class characters.  While his wife was a communist, as was his secretary, there’s no indication Garfield was ever a member, nonetheless the House Un-American Activities Committee hounded Garfield to his death, as after his original testimony, he learned they were reviewing the transcripts for possible perjury charges, where he died at the age of 39 of a heart attack, allegedly aggravated by the stress of the blacklisting.  Director Robert Rossen’s parents were also Russian Jewish immigrants from the Lower East Side, where both Rossen and Garfield ran in a similar gang-infested world of gamblers, bootleggers, hustlers, and prostitutes, where Rossen was drawn to the Communist Party as a form of social protest against the disillusionment caused by the social and economic hardships of the Depression in the 30’s.  Add to this screenwriter Abraham Polonsky, also from Russian Jewish parents in New York, where we begin to see a pattern of real life that left an imprint on each of these artists.  Rossen was blacklisted in 1951, one of the 19 unfriendly witnesses who refused to testify in 1947, but felt deceived and disillusioned by the Communist Party’s support of the brutal Russian dictatorship under Stalin, breaking all prior ties with the party in 1949, but was able to work again in 1953 after providing the names of 57 other people who were or had been communists.  If one explores the narrative of his later work THE HUSTLER (1961), in many ways it parallels the themes and storyline of BODY AND SOUL.  It’s also interesting that ALL THE KING’S MEN (1949), directed before the blacklisting, and THE HUSTLER (1961), directed afterwards, were both selected to the National Film Registry.  Both Polonsky and Garfield, teamed up again in Force of Evil (1948), were blacklisted as much for the tone of their films as their politics, where Polonsky’s heroes are cocky, self-assured loners who are outside the mainstream of society, the kind of guys that break the rules in order to get ahead, often disregarding the interests of others, while Garfield was viewed as a working class hero, a kid literally from the streets who became a success in Hollywood bringing a rough-edged authenticity to his characters.  These were not the cardboard cut out caricatures of morally righteous men that dominated Hollywood cinema.  Polonsky also wrote a part for a washed-up boxer (Canada Lee, a middleweight boxing champion of the 30’s, who also died shortly after being blacklisted) in BODY AND SOUL, one of the earlier examples of a black character portrayed with such humanity, a man exploited whose feelings and emotions mattered, exactly the kind of challenging work that was viewed as critical of America and raised the suspicions of the HUAC Committee.   

While perhaps impossible to believe today, but in the 30’s and 40’s perhaps one-third of all boxers were Jewish, as they were the ethnic group rising from the slums to get a chance to make something of themselves.  Given such skillful direction by Rossen, along with Polonsky’s blunt cynicism in a screenplay about how the system is fixed, Garfield’s own street swagger makes him born to play boxer Charlie Davis, something of an update on the Clifford Odets Group Theater play The Golden Boy, which tackles a film noir theme of a working class hero who is exploited and eventually brought down by the corrupt forces of capitalism, where the fight promoter Roberts (Lloyd Gough) could just as easily be George C. Scott as the unscrupulous manager Bert Gordon in THE HUSTLER, or Don King during the Muhammad Ali era, as he’s little more than a sophisticated gangster who bankrolls the fights, but takes no chances when it comes to his money, so he fixes the outcome, then makes a killing on the betting odds.  The first boxing movie to shine a light on the sport’s ugly underbelly, the sport is still tainted by this underworld association with gambling, where Las Vegas, a town built by organized crime, continues to set the odds.  It’s this lurid world of gangsters, sleaze, and trouble that provides the backdrop for the film, much of which is told in an extended flashback to happier times when Charlie was just a young punk from the slums of New York, where his family is barely scraping by running a corner candy store, where Charlie is a legend in the neighborhood, known for his quick hands, going against the wishes of his mother (Anne Revere, yes, actually related to Paul Revere) who tells him “That is no way to live, hitting people and knocking their teeth out.”  But his early success draws the attention of Quinn (William Conrad), a local fight promoter with dubious underworld connections, where the dark world of boxing is balanced by the charming innocence of the girl of his dreams, Peg (Lilli Palmer, with just a trace of her native German accent), who could care less about the fight game, but loves him for who he is.  The film won an Academy Award for Best Editing, as the early fight sequences streamed together, one after the other in quick succession, resemble newsreel documentary footage, spinning newspaper headlines, traveling in high speed locomotives from town to town, where his name continually rises from being at the bottom of the boxing posters until he’s one of the featured names on top.  Notoriety brings the opportunity for fame and fortune, where the lure of money and a chance to fight for the title leads him to Roberts, a mob-connected promoter who dictates the terms of each fight, where the money is too good to turn down.  When Peg sees who he’s dealing with, gangsters and hangers-on, and how they “take care” of Shorty (Joseph Pevney), Charlie’s longtime friend from the neighborhood who dies in an accident shortly after being roughed up, she leaves him with all the underworld undesirables, refusing to be part of that world.   

With Roberts, however, Charlie rakes in the dough, becoming noticeably more greedy and ruthless, where there’s plenty of money to spread around and he’s suddenly the king of the world, drawing the attention of opportunist lounge-singer Alice (Hazel Brooks), formerly Quinn’s girlfriend, who loves the finer things in life.  So long as Charlie provides the money train, she’ll play along, grabbing everything she can get, where Charlie’s too wrapped up in the bright lights to see the real picture.  The constant fights, however, and the high living take a toll on him, where a guy can’t fight forever, leading to one final championship fight, seen as the ultimate payday, where like MILDRED PIERCE (1945) the whole film is one long pre-fight flashback, where his entire life is flashing before his eyes.  For Charlie and his entourage, it’s all about money and success, as that’s the American Dream, but there’s an interesting scene that plays out in his mother’s kitchen, where a Jewish kid from the neighborhood is delivering his mother’s groceries, and when he sees Charlie, he can’t hold back how proud the whole neighborhood is of him, especially at a time when the Nazi’s are killing Jews in Europe.  Interestingly, this 20-second segment was often cut by distributors in the European prints, a practice revealed when the scene was missing from a DVD cut from a European print, but his brief little scene may be the most interesting sequence in the film, suggesting there has to be more to live for than just money, adding a human element that elevates the film.  The role of Charlie was based upon real life Jewish boxer Barney Ross, born Dov-Ber Rasofsky (also depicted in André de Toth’s 1957 film MONKEY ON MY BACK), a world champion in three weight divisions and a decorated World War II Marine veteran who fought back from drug addiction, who also came from a hard scrabble working class neighborhood where he ran around with local toughs.  A rabbi’s son, where his father was the owner of a small vegetable shop in Chicago's Maxwell Street neighborhood, Ross was idolized and respected by all Americans, but he openly embraced his role not only as a winner in the ring, but as a role model for Jews against the virulent anti-Jewish venom displayed by Hitler, displaying the strength and courage of fighting back.  Polonsky’s script includes the heroic view of how others see Charlie, but his view of himself is the larger question, especially when he’s ordered by Roberts to throw the fight.  This ethical dilemma has a staggering impact, beautifully set up by Charlie’s rise through the ranks, where he becomes spoiled by his success, showing arrogance and greed.  The fluid mobility of the fight sequences, especially the climactic fight, so beautifully shot by cinematographer James Wong Howe, was captured on rollerskates as he glided across the ring with a handheld camera, using eight different cameras in all, three on dollies, two handheld, and three on cranes hovering above, creating a dreamlike flurry of motion, where the screams of the audience and the constant flash of light bulbs from the photographers adds an astonishing level of gritty realism, where Garfield was knocked out and injured during the filming of one of his fight scenes, which is exactly what Martin Scorsese loved about the film when describing its impact on RAGING BULL (1980).  But it’s Garfield’s intense personal magnetism and his ability to express human decency, however tarnished, where ultimately he refuses to be humiliated and exploited, that elevate this film to lofty heights, as he paved the way for flawed human characters, including social misfits and outsiders, like Marlon Brando and James Dean, but also fellow New Yorkers Robert de Niro and Al Pacino.

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