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The influence of Body and Soul (1947) can be seen in every boxing film that followed, including such classics as Champion (1949) and Raging Bull (1980). Gritty realism, harsh lighting and a cynical view of the sport became the standard for fight films after the popular success of Body and Soul.
Star John Garfield had lost the lead role in Clifford Odets' Broadway boxing drama Golden Boy in 1937 despite Odets having written the role with him in mind. Shortly afterwards, Garfield went to Hollywood, signed a contract with Warner Brothers, and became a star in Four Daughters (1938). When the contract ended in 1946, Warner Brothers offered Garfield a new fifteen-year contract but he turned them down. Instead he started his own film company, Enterprise Studios. His first project: a boxing drama based on the life of Barney Ross, the middleweight champion who became a hero in the U.S. Marines, turned to drugs, and fought his way back.
The boxing theme was okay with the censors but any mention of drug addiction was then forbidden. Forced to fictionalize the story, screenwriter Abraham Polonsky devised his own; a fighter rising out of the Jewish ghetto of New York City and going along with the gangsters for a taste of the big money even if it means betraying everyone he loves. To direct, Garfield chose Robert Rossen, another Warner Brothers veteran who had just directed Johnny O'Clock (1947). As for Garfield's original plan to do a film about boxer Barney Ross, United Artists developed it into a movie biography in 1957 entitled Monkey on My Back. The director was Andre De Toth and it starred Cameron Mitchell as Ross.
Garfield pushed himself to the limit for authenticity, suffering a mild heart attack while exercising in one scene and knocking himself out when he collided with a camera boom while filming a fight with former welterweight fighter Art Darrell. This last injury gave him a head wound that took six stitches to close.
It was no wonder Garfield ran into camera equipment. Cinematographer James Wong Howe was not content to park his camera ringside. He got into the ring on roller skates, holding a 16mm camera while an assistant pushed him into the action. Said Howe, "I wanted an effect where the boxer is knocked out and he looks up into a dazzle of lights; with a heavy, fixed camera, you'd never get that."
Body and Soul opened to rave reviews and huge box office returns. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times said, "Altogether this Enterprise picture rolls up a round-by-round triumph on points until it comes through with a climactic knockout that his the all-time high in throat-catching fight films." Garfield was nominated for Best Actor by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as was Abraham Polonsky for his screenplay. Francis Lyon and Robert Parrish won the Oscar for Best Editing.
However, the success of Garfield's Enterprise Studios was short-lived. A self-professed "lifelong Democrat," Garfield hired Hollywood liberals and leftists and quickly became embroiled in the witch-hunt for Communists in Hollywood. Garfield, Polonsky, Rossen and Body and Soul actors Anne Revere and Canada Lee were all called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Their names were added to Hollywood's blacklist and their careers were either long-delayed or ended. Unable to get work in the last two years of his life, Garfield died in 1952 at the age of 49.
Producer: Bob Roberts
Director: Robert Rossen
Screenplay: Abraham Polonsky
Art Direction: Nathan Juran
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Costume Design: Marion Herwood Keyes
Film Editing: Francis D. Lyon, Robert Parrish
Original Music: Hugo W. Friedhofer, Edward Heyman
Principal Cast: John Garfield (Charlie Davis), Lilli Palmer (Peg Born), James Burke (Arnold), Anne Revere (Anna Davis), Canada Lee (Ben Chaplin), Mary Currier (Miss Tedder), Hazel Brooks (Alice), Joe Devlin (Prince), William Conrad (Quinn).
By Brian Cady