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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #27: Body and Soul, 1947

Promoter Roberts: "What makes you think you can get away with this?"
Charley Davis: "What are you gonna do? Kill me? Everybody dies."

Director: Robert Rossen
Writers: Abraham Polonsky
Cinematographer: James Wong Howe
Producer: Bob Roberts for Enterprise Productions
Starring: John Garfield, Lilli Palmer, Anne Revere, Canada Lee, Hazel Brooks, William Conrad

Fascinating shot of nightclub singer Alice (Hazel Brooks) and her
lover Quinn (William Conrad).

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
As the only son of a lower East Side candy store owner during the early days of the depression, Charley Davis dreams of being a prizefighter but his mother is intent on seeing him go to college. When his father is accidentally killed in a gang-related hit, Charley is more determined than ever to pursue his dreams and earn enough money boxing to support his mother and his fiancee, Peg. Unfortunately, he falls victim to unscrupulous agents and promoters, and while his fortunes rise, his integrity sinks. When he is duped into endangering the life of one of his rivals in the ring but a friend outside of it, and Peg leaves him, he must decide if he'll sell out to corruption or get out before it's too late.

Production Background
John Garfield was a star for Warner Bros. in the 1930s and early 1940s, but when his contract expired he formed his own production company, Enterprise Productions, and employed many of his colleagues from the Group Theater to develop films that had sociopolitical messages - Body and Soul was one of the first of those. Screenwriter Polonksy adapted a story of the life of boxer Barney Ross, with significant details altered, for the script. To capture the intensity of the boxing matches, cinematographer James Wong Howe apparently rollerskated with his camera around the ring in the boxing scene at the end of the movie. 

The film was well-reviewed at the time, when Garfield reached perhaps the peak of his success, shortly before the Communist witch hunts put a target on him. He received his second and last Oscar nomination for his performance in this film. Polonsky also received a nomination for his script.

Some other notable film-related events in 1947 (from

  • The Actors Studio, a rehearsal group for professional actors, was established in New York City by Elia Kazan, Robert Lewis, and Cheryl Crawford. It soon became the epicenter for advancing "the Method" - a technique of acting that was inspired by Konstantin Stanislavski's teachings. It later gained fame through the leadership of Lee Strasberg in the 1950s, whose clients included Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean.
  • In Washington, D.C., the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) opened its hearings for an investigation of alleged communist influence in the Hollywood movie industry. It subpoenaed 41 witnesses, its first wave of witnesses which included the 'unfriendly' "Hollywood 19" (13 of 19 were writers). 
  • The Golden Age of Hollywood peaked at 4.7 billion theater admissions in 1947.
  • MGM's Cynthia (1947) was the coming-of-age film for budding 15-year-old screen star Elizabeth Taylor, in which she played the title role of small-town, physically-frail, musically-talented teenager Cynthia Bishop. She received her first (grown-up) on-screen kiss from beau Ricky Latham (Jimmy Lydon) in a scene on a front porch following their attendance at the Spring Prom.
  • 1947 was the first year in which an outstanding foreign film would be honored each year by a special non-competitive statuette; the first film to win was Vittorio de Sica's, Shoe Shine. [The Academy had no separate category to recognize foreign language films until 1956 when it established the Best Foreign Language Film category.] The film also received only one competitive Oscar nomination, Best Original Screenplay.

My Random Observations

  • Why must all female love interests be artists or nightclub singers? Why not pharmacists, research chemists, or accountants?! I may be exaggerating, but every once in a while this chemist would like to see a working woman in a more ordinary profession get noticed by leading men. 
    The "other woman" is nightclub singer Alice, who Charley 
    visits (with his back to the camera) when he's feeling blue.

Peg and Charley are attracted to each other even while
he pushes a bit too hard.

Alice visits Charley at the ring; let the flirting commence.

  • Another comment about the times: despite smoking being ever so prevalent during the mid-20th century, I would have thought in a studio full of freshly painted art it would be verboten. Not so. Watching Lilli Palmer's character strike a cigarette in her own artist's studio took me out of the picture momentarily imagining a yellow film over all those paintings. 
    Peg (Lilli Palmer) lights up while Charley (John Garfield)
    chats with her roommate.
  • While Charley and his parents clearly live on the lower East Side of NYC, there doesn't appear to be anything in the film that depends on their being Jewish except for a matter-of-fact declaration by a social worker in a scene where Mrs. Davis (Anne Revere) is applying for monetary assistance--a rather refreshing and unusual perspective in the 1940s. Of course, Garfield was Jewish, along with screenwriter Polonsky, and he had just come off the successful Oscar-winner A Gentleman's Agreement, all about being Jewish in America and anti-Semitism. 
  • I normally approach boxing movies with trepidation as I don't relish seeing two humans bash each other for sport, but this one had relatively few scenes of with actual fighting. The climatic match at the end of the film was fabulous to watch, kinetic and apparently realistic, yet not so brutal that I had to turn my head.
  • Charley (Garfield) does get beat around in the boxing scene.
    Apparently Garfield at one point suffered a minor heart attack 
    while filming.

  • Beware of spoilers in this comment about the irony of art and life. Canada Lee's character, boxer Ben Chaplin, suffers a blood clot in his brain that could dislodge and kill him at any moment. It basically ends his boxing career, but when he is fired in his coach role his emotional reaction triggers the fatal attack (this was a heartrenching scene). In real life, though, it was Garfield's precarious health (due to a scarlet fever-damaged heart) that threatened to end his life. And similar to Canada Lee's character, a rejection (his blacklisting during the HUAC witchhunt era and corresponding loss of film roles) is believed to have precipitated his fatal heart attack at only age 39. 
    Ben Chaplin (Canada Lee) and Charley have a heart-to-heart.
  • I was struck by the choice of lighting in key scenes in the film. Most of the early scenes, and almost all in the Lower East Side are at night or in limited lighting and shadows, perhaps signalling the tough life our hero was living in, or his state of mind then. When he begins to attract money and fame, indoor scenes are much brighter, and there are a few outdoor daytime scenes as well. Here we have a life much more desirable and seductive. No wonder it's hard to turn away from corruption and easy living.
    Charley and Peg conduct their courtship in the shadowy
    Lower East Side.

Charley returns to his mother's apartment (Anne Revere) and finds
she doesn't approve of how he makes his living.

When the dough is rolling in, Charley is in the bright lights:
here in his luxury apartment way uptown.

Where to Watch
The film is currently on YouTube, here.

Further Reading
The Film Noir Board blog digs into the meanings in the film's story and makes the case that it's a noir film. 
As usual, TCM's site provides production details.

A confrontation over a high price to pay to maintain the
lifestyle to which our hero and his lady have become accustomed.

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