Christmas night I made my sister watch Body and Soul (1947), her first viewing in fulfillment of our bet (if she watches 10 classic films, I will watch Breaking Bad). During the movie, she alternately complained about the music, stared blankly, and dozed off. Afterward, she said, “Well the acting wasn’t good,” and when I asked that she at least subtract my beloved John Garfield from that assessment, said, “He was fine. But it’s not like he’s Robert De Niro. You don’t actually think he’s that good, do you?”
Deflated. It’s a good word, isn’t it? Maybe I should have considered Rachel’s crankiness first: it was late, and she had just lost at Scene It; my sister does not take movie trivia loss well.
You might ask why I care that my sister won’t give classic movies a chance. I have, after all, plenty of others to convince. But Rachel and I otherwise share a movie brain, at least with dramas. I text Rachel right after I leave a theater with my commentary, and will go see almost every film she recommends, which is why she occasionally messes with me, sending me to a movie she knows is lousy so that she can call and say, “Yeah, awful, right? Thought you’d agree.”
I hadn’t viewed Body and Soul first (a risky move), but it came highly recommended, it was a sports movie, it was Garfield, and it was good—not as neatly edited or as intriguing as The Set-Up, but with similar themes and a dark mood she couldn’t dismiss as cheesy. I had hoped it would chisel a bit into her seemingly implacable beliefs about classic film: acting is better now, production quality is better now, any sequel would therefore be better than the originals, so why bother?
The film had no effect on her whatsoever, though she was intrigued by Garfield’s blacklisting. But in the interest of others who haven’t seen it, I’ll share a few things about the film, which my sister should have appreciated:
Good Supporting Characters
The story revolves around Charley’s (John Garfield’s) treatment of friends and family, and how that echoes his own deeper entanglement into the shady underworld of boxing.
He gets into the sport at the urging of his quick-talking friend, Shorty (Joseph Pevney). Disappointed he won’t pursue an education instead, his mother reassures herself he’s at least honest and has good taste in women, preferring a sweet artist, Peg (Lilli Palmer), to a bombshell (Hazel Brooks). Of course, he quickly succumbs to the temptations that have already sunk his one-time-rival, now trainer, Ben (Canada Lee).
I agree with Rachel that most of the women didn’t add much to the film; neither Palmer’s nor Brooks’s acting was notable, but neither subtracted from the film, and Peg’s independent spirit made her character a surprising one. How many boxers do we see—in any generation—courting an aspiring painter? She’s far more interesting than this supporting player in another boxing film Rachel likes better:
Even Rachel praised Shorty (Pevney), the friend who helps broker the deal to get Charley into the business, and then comes to regret it due to Charley’s dealings with the immoral Roberts (Lloyd Gough). Shorty’s lively presence added much-needed humor to the proceedings, and his later absence from the film definitely hurt it.
An Intriguing Sparring Partner
But far more interesting than any of these other relationships is Charley’s with his rival, the champ, Ben (Canada Lee), who has a medical issue Charley isn’t told about before their first bout. Ben later befriends the newcomer, and starts to train Charley instead of fighting himself.
This made me wonder, as I’m not in on the usual trends of the boxing world. Is this, we-fight-to-the-death, now we train together a thing?
Interestingly, Charley seems to be unfazed by Roberts’ treatment of others, but his boss’s continued harshness toward Ben (racism? or just his usual cold-bloodedness?) begins to finally erode his nonchalance about his own complicity in the corruption, especially after Roberts asks him to be in on a fix.
Lee’s part in the film should have been greater, as the movie’s start makes it clear just how important he is to Charley. But even what we get is interesting, and Lee captures both the pathetic nature of an older fighter, and his impressive inner strength; Ben is the representative of the soul that Charley has been abandoning in the pursuit of the perfect body, and foreshadows Charley’s likely future.
There should have been more to the fights, which is my usual complaint. (Don’t even get me started on the lack of boxing scenes in the dreadful Million Dollar Baby). But I like how Body and Soul, which can go overboard with sentimental music, suddenly becomes silent in the last bout, enabling viewers to more fully take in the brutality.
As I watched, I kept hearing Rocky’s soundtrack, and realized the music in that later film had in many ways numbed me to the violence, counteracted it in some way by suggesting a possible victory. But here, I could feel the impact on the skin, the muscles, the bones.
I can hear my sister asking me—which she actually didn’t—do you actually think this is better than Rocky? I didn’t. But I don’t think that’s the point. The film had something else to say, and I liked how it said it, and found Garfield as riveting as I usually do.
“I can’t decide,” Rachel said at one point, “if he’s good looking.”
“He’s attractive,” I answered, “not really handsome.” Her comment made me smile because you can’t stop asking yourself that when you watch him; you can’t keep your eyes off the guy. So something, at least, sank in.
As for our bet, I fear that at best my sister will regard any of the 10 movies she likes as exceptions to her classic-movies-suck rule, rather than as proof she’s wrong about them. But it’ll make her see some just the same, which is good in itself.
There was one moment of consolation, as I watched my sister’s disappointing response to Body and Soul. I’d shared a Miranda Lambert song with my mom earlier that week, and to my horror, heard her playing Rachel the video, urging her to like it too. My sister is a Beatles fanatic and has performed rock music since the age of five or so. She has ALWAYS despised country. My sister’s outraged response to my mom was as comic as I would have anticipated, and far more animated than her objections to my film choice. I could hear her spitting “twang” and “seriously?” and “that loser Blake Shelton” from the other side of the house.
So at least I’m not trying to convince her into country.
Bout 1: Rachel 1, Me 0, Country Music -1