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The working title of the film was The Barney Ross Story. The following written statement appears just after the film's opening title card: "The story of Barney Ross one-time lightweight champion twice world's welterweight champion ex-corporal, U.S. Marine Corps awarded Silver Star for Gallantry in Action." A voice-over narration by Cameron Mitchell, as Ross, is heard intermittently throughout the film. The Copyright Catalog incorrectly listed the film's title as Money on My Back.
The film's title refers to an expression that came into use in the late 1940s to early 1950s signifying the feelings of a drug user that his addiction was tantamount to having a monkey on his back. At the conclusion of the film, instead of "The End," the credits read "The Beginning." At one point in the film, when Ross is fleeing the police in the back alleys of Chicago, there is a brief, medium close-up shot of a white soldier kissing an African-American woman. No contemporary sources commented on the then rarity of an interracial kissing scene.
As depicted in the film, Barney Ross (1909-1967), whose real name was Barnet Rasofsky, was a Chicago boxer who held three world championship boxing titles, lightweight, junior welterweight and welterweight, losing, then regaining the welterweight title on two different occasions. Although allusions are made within the story to the fact that he and his mother are Jewish, that fact is otherwise not mentioned in the film. The film also refrains from any mention of Ross's early life, nor does it relate that Ross's father, a store owner and rabbi, was shot to death during a robbery when his son was only fourteen.
In the film's opening fight, Ross regained the welterweight title by defeating Jimmy McLarnin. In his May 31, 1938 fight against Henry Armstrong, Ross lost his title. As in the film, Ross immediately retired from the ring. During World War II, Ross enlisted in the Marine Corps and fought on Guadalcanal. He was awarded the Silver Star and hailed as a hero, in part because of carrying his comrade to safety despite heavy enemy fire, but during his convalescence from a wound and malaria, became addicted to morphine. After a period of several years of addiction, Ross checked himself into a federal hospital in 1946 and remained drug free for the remainder of his life. As in the film, Ross was reunited with his wife following his stay in the hospital.
Ross's drug addiction became well-known in the late 1940s and early 1950s following broadcast of his story on the NBC radio program This Is Your Life on May 24, 1949. According to a pressbook for the film contained in copyright records, Ross acknowledged that his friend, Fr. Frederick P. Gehring, often called "the Padre of Guadalcanal," convinced him to allow a film to be made of his life.
A Hollywood Reporter news item on December 21, 1954 noted that Clarence Greene, who at that time was to produce The Barney Ross Story for Edward Small, and Russell Rouse, who was to direct, were seeking Marlon Brando for the title role. Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety production charts list Ted Post as the film's director until mid-February 1957. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item on February 11, 1957, Andre de Toth took over from Post on February 8, 1957 after Post became ill. Only de Toth is credited onscreen, and it has not been determined what scenes, if any, directed by Post were retained in the film.
According to Hollywood Reporter news items, Dianne Foster was borrowed from Columbia for her role in the film, and the Guadalcanal jungle scenes were shot at Universal Studios. Two days of night street scenes shooting took place on M-G-M's backlot. One Hollywood Reporter news item and a script contained in the film's PCA file indicates that "Noreen" was portrayed by Lariann Gillespie. However, that role was credited onscreen to Kathy Garver, who had appeared in several films prior to Monkey on My Back. Boxer Ceferino Garcia, who appeared briefly in the film, fought Ross in the mid-1930s.
Other Hollywood Reporter news items add the following actors to the cast, but their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed: Calvin Booth, Kathy Marlowe, Harriet Taylor, Joey Ray, Mickey Golden, Mack Chandler, Nick Raymond, Mark Scott, William Taylor, Jody Warner, Bernie Rich, Jim Turley, Frank Bella, Duane Cress, Mary Lou Halloway, Mike Monroe, Kevin Hagen, Maury Hill, Ronny Hargraves, Al Shelly, Oscar Blank, Bob Fuller, George Eldredge, Scott Peters, Elizabeth Harrower and Freeman Lusk and boxers Phil Bloom, Willie Bloom, Jack Perry, Johnny Conde, Ed Guerrera, Artie Sullivan, Joe Fernando and Bing Connolly.
As noted in reviews, news items and the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, Monkey on My Back was denied a PCA Seal, the first film to be denied the Seal due to drug use-related scenes since the revised PCA Code took effect in 1956, and the first drug-related film to be denied a Seal since Otto Preminger's 1956 picture The Man with the Golden Arm.
According to correspondence within the PCA file, as early 1951, Ross's story was being developed as a film by Columbia Pictures and other studios. A December 21, 1951 letter from Columbia executive B. B. Kahane informed the PCA that H. J. Anslinger, then U.S. Commissioner of Narcotics, had no objections to a picture about the fighter, particularly considering the publicity that Ross's personal story had generated in newspapers. A letter dated May 7, 1952, from Acting Commissioner of Narcotics B. W. Cunningham to Joseph I. Breen of the PCA, apparently in response to an earlier PCA letter not included in the film's file, reiterated that the Narcotics Bureau had no implicit objection to a film about Ross's life.
The only script noted in the PCA file was from Edward Small Productions, Inc., [related to Imperial Pictures, Inc. and also owned by Small] submitted in November 1956. At that time, the PCA warned Small that the drug injection scene was unacceptable to the PCA, based on regulations within the Production Code. In April 1957, after the film was completed and submitted to the PCA for approval, it was denied a Code Seal, even after a second review requested by Small, for the following reason: "the scene in which Barney Ross is shown injecting morphine into his arm with a hypodermic, appears to be in violation of Paragraph d, Section 9 of the Production Code, which states that no picture shall be approved by the PCA if it 'shows details of drug procurement or of the taking of drugs in any manner.'"
In April 1957 correspondence, the PCA advised Small and United Artists executives that they had the right to appeal the decision "with the Board of Directors of the Association in New York." Information within the files, as well as news items, confirm that the decision was appealed and that Small expected to receive a Code seal. However, the April 1957 decision was not reversed. Following the film's Chicago premiere and Los Angeles opening in mid-May 1957, the scene depicting Ross injecting himself with morphine was intact, and the film's credits did not include a PCA number or MPAA seal. The most recent letter in the film's PCA file, dated July 23, 1957, was sent by Geoffrey M. Shurlock of the PCA to United Artists executive Gordon White, informing him that no further action would be taken on the film. Despite the controversy over the drug injection scene in Monkey on My Back, the National Catholic Legion of Decency did not condemn it, but granted the picture a "B" or objectionable in part rating, and no individual states or countries refused to exhibit the film.
Following the mid-May 1957 opening of the film, news items in Hollywood trade papers and newspapers reported that Ross was unhappy with the released film. Although the film's pressbook quoted Ross as saying "When Edward Small asked me to tell my story in a movie I agreed on one condition: 'Show me no mercy,'" and in late April 1957 Ross publicly defended the film against the PCA's refusal to grant the picture a Seal, on 15 May, the former boxer was quoted in Hollywood Reporter and other trade publications as calling the picture "filth, bilge and cheap sensationalism."
According to a "Hollywood Insider" column in Daily Variety on May 16, 1957, Small stated that Ross had approved every page of the script. He refused, though, to comment on a report by United Artists vice-president Max E. Youngstein, carried in Variety the previous day, that Ross had raised objections to the film only after being refused an additional $50,000 for the rights to his life story. Although news items stated that Ross's attorney, Harold Perlman, announced plans to file a $5,000,000 libel action against United Artists and the Woods Theatre where the film was playing in Chicago, no information has been located to indicate that the suit was actually filed.
Late in 1957, following the release of the film, Ross published an autobiographical book entitled No Man Stands Alone; The True Story of Barney Ross, co-authored with Martin Abramson. Excerpts from the book were reprinted in Reader's Digest in February 1958. The film project that became the 1947 release Body and Soul, directed by Robert Rossen and starring John Garfield, initially was to be based on Ross's life. For additional information, please see the entry for that film in AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50.