Body and Soul (1947) is most famous as a boxing film: cinematographer James Wong Howe had been a Golden Gloves boxer himself, and filmed the fight scenes in the ring, on roller skates, creating film that would set the bar for boxing films for decades ahead, notably Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. It is the story of a young Jewish man, Charlie Davis (played by John Garfield) East Side son of a candy store operator, who has a talent for “nothing much but boxing.” His father dies when a Mob bombing of the speakeasy next door destroys his shop. Charlie is a “wild” boy but a good one, and will not fight against his mother’s wishes until Mama (played by Anne Revere) is left without the means to support herself. A pivotal moment:
Charlie: Shorty! Shorty, get me that fight from Quinn. I want money. Do you understand? Money, money!
Mama: I forbid, I forbid. Better buy a gun and shoot yourself.
Charlie: You need MONEY to buy a gun!
Money becomes the be-all and end-all of Charlie’s life. He is successful as a fighter, but to be in championship fights, he needs to cozy up to the men who run the big fights, and not incidentally fix the big fights. He insists to his best friend (played by Joseph Pevney) that it doesn’t matter if “they” want to buy his arm — after all it’s Charlie’s arm to sell, if he wants to. He makes lots of money, and he spends lots of money, and eventually he is told by the crooked promoter who “owns” him that he must throw a fight.
The film was a special project of actor John Garfield, who searched for years for the right screenplay for a boxing film. The screenplay for Body and Soul, by Abraham Polonsky, was nominated for an Academy Award, as was Garfield’s acting. The film won the 1947 Oscar for Best Editing.
The dialogue in the film barely mentions the fact that Charlie Davis is a Jew: certainly the name isn’t Jewish. However, there are dozens of clues that make it clear that Polonsky was thinking of a Jewish boxer when he made the film (and production notes included as an extra in the Region 1 DVD release confirm) that originally Garfield was interested in making a biopic of a Jewish boxer who had drug problems, preventing the script from being greenlighted in that form. Even though the biopic fell through, the screenplay of Body and Soul mentions that Charlie is Jewish, and his mother is determined and vocal about Jewish values of education, of not wasting, of modesty (against ostentation), and family.
Anna Davis (Mama) is adamant that Charlie is going to get an education. She and her husband may have been small-time merchants, living on the East Side, but she has big dreams for her son, all of which have more to do with education than with wealth. She is furious at the idea of him as a boxer. This tension between the generations is a frequent theme in American Jewish film, from The Jazz Singer in 1927 to The Chosen in 1982, to Crossing Delancey in 1988. How are the old Jewish values of the “old country” going to translate to New York of the 20’s or the 80’s?
Note, too, that the men making money on Charlie are white: Charlie is a Jew, the champ he unseats is African American, and his opponent in the big fight at the end is a Texas hillbilly. (Remember, in 1947, Jews were not yet considered “white” — see Gentleman’s Agreement, below.)
The moralistic plot (which may seem a bit heavy-handed for modern audiences) is a parable on the dangers and seductions of money, spun out with rabbinical details. Three friends warn Charlie of the dangers of his path: his fiance, his friend Shorty, and his trainer, Ben. He is so mesmerized by the cash that he cannot hear any of them. Other friends, “evil companions” straight out of midrash, encourage him to remain obsessed with making and spending “dough”.
In a post-Madoff age, this old film takes on a new edge: if you wonder how Bernie Madoff could have done what he did, look at the gleam in Charlie Davis’s eyes.
John Garfield co-starred in another film in the same year, Gentleman’s Agreement, which deals much more overtly with Jewish issues. Both Body and Soul and Gentleman’s Agreement had casts and crew who were decimated by the Hollywood Blacklist of the McCarthy Era; in some cases, this was the last American film they would make for 20 years or more.