The timeless ‘Body and Soul’
By WILLIAM MCSWEENEY
A recent “Years Ago” page that covered January 1948 mentioned that “Body and Soul” was playing at the Sayville Theater. What a movie that was, and is!
Before there was “Champion,” before “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” before “Raging Bull,” there was 1947’s “Body and Soul.” Without a scintilla of sentiment, the film presents the business of boxing as merely emblematic of American capitalism: it is, you see, all about money. Needless to say, the film was left-oriented. Its principal star, John Garfield—who styled himself, with pride, as a “lifelong Democrat”—had just instituted his own production company, Enterprise Studios, and the company’s first effort was this movie. In the main, Garfield hired politically like-minded colleagues, drawing from the left screenwriter Abraham Polonsky, director Robert Rossen, actors Lloyd Gough, Canada Lee, and the doyenne of liberalism, Anne Revere.
All of these would later draw the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and their careers would consequently suffer—it can be persuasively argued that the interrogation of Garfield soon thereafter led to his premature death by heart attack. Nonetheless, surviving HUAC were Polonsky (“Out of Africa”), Rossen (“All the King’s Men”) and Gough, who would have a bittersweet last laugh: he played in Martin Ritt’s “The Front,” a film directed by a former blacklisted director and populated with others who were blacklisted as well.
I know, I know, reader, you’re telling me to let the politics go. No. The movie is a political movie. It can’t be mislabeled as a noir, it can’t be reduced to a boxing movie. Consider the plot. Garfield’s character—with the everyman name of Charley Davis—is a have-not from the lower East Side; his principal characteristic, his physical courage; his sole ability, his skill in the ring. This skill is what brings him to the attention of promoter Roberts (Gough), who “buys” Charley and over the course of a few short years introduces him to money and its corrupting power. Charley’s body is rented, but his soul is bought. He soon enough discards all those who love him—his girl Peg (Palmer), his best friend Shorty (Joseph Pevney) and his mother (Revere).
And Charley himself corrupts others: when his trainer (Lee) balks at working for Roberts, Charley tells him to disregard ethical qualms: “Ben, take the money, it has no morals.”
The climax of the film sees Roberts tell Charley that in his next fight, Charley is to “go into the tank” and be rewarded with a good payoff. Sensing Charley’s hesitation, Roberts says, “You’d probably lose anyway, Charley, even if we did it straight. You’re no longer used to boxing—you’re used to living.”
You’ll have to see the movie to discover if Charley finds redemption. I’ll not give away the ending, nor give away the greatest end-line ever delivered in a film. This line is followed by both the ending credits and the swelling of that beautiful music, which has long been mandatory in jazz reparatory, Johnny Green’s “Body and Soul.”
The film would garner great reviews upon its release, would be a box-office success, and would win the Academy Award for Best Film Editing. Garfield was himself nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Polonsky was nominated for Best Writing, Original Screenplay.
Improbable to report, James Wong Howe’s cinematography went unheralded, and here we’re talking about the work of an inventive man who, aboard roller skates and using a hand-held camera, entered the ring, followed the fighters, and via his efforts, lent a close-up, brutal, vertiginous fluidity to the action. Simply put, Howe placed you there.
The film remains recognized. In 2014, it was voted as the Greatest Boxing Movie Ever by the Houston Boxing Hall Of Fame. For the reasons given in my essay, I think the Houston folk misrecognized the movie. But it doesn’t matter how you see “Body and Soul,” just see it! n
William E. McSweeney is a lifelong film buff, having fallen in love with movies in 1945, when, in his mother’s good company, he saw “Anchors Aweigh” at Patchogue’s Rialto Theater.
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