Academic journal article CineAction

Body and Soul

Academic journal article CineAction

Body and Soul

Article excerpt

Hollywood movie star John Garfield was born Jules Jacob Garfield on March 4, 1913 to Russian and Ukrainian Jewish immigrants living in a two-room tenement on Rivington Street of New York's Lower East Side. These ethnic working class roots would continually be associated with his star persona. While working at Warner Bros, most of his screen roles would follow the mould of the ethnic street tough defined by the likes of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. (1) But in four films made after the war--Humoresque (1946), Gentleman's Agreement (1947), Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil (1948)--Garfield portrayed specifically Jewish men. Although only two of these films would specify his character's Jewish roots, all four can be easily read as Jewish texts at least by the nature of the characters' family relations, the characters' predilection toward social collectivity as well as clues provided by occasional Yiddish inflections spoken by secondary characters and locales such as the Lower East Side.

With John Garfield, left-wing novelist, playwright, screenwriter and director Abraham Polonsky would make two moral parables--Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil (1948)--dealing with the need for ethnic/Jewish working class and family solidarity and the personal corruption caused by social mobility within the world of American capitalism. Mainly through a close reading of Body and Soul, this article will focus on two aspects of this first collaboration: First, I will discuss how it revitalized the structure and conventions of the earlier Hollywood depictions of the Jewish family that were defined during the silent era. Body and Soul (as well as Garfield's version of Humoresque, made a year earlier) revisits the Jewish family archetypes that were depicted in these early silent films; Patricia Erens defines these as "the Stern Patriarch, the Prodigal Son, the Rose of the Ghetto ... [and] the Long Suffering Mother". (2) Secondly, wish to suggest that Polonsky's screenplay of Body and Soul, written specifically for Garfield, fully understood and articulated the progressive aspects of the actor's previously defined screen persona--in particular, its ambivalent relationship to the American male ideals of toughness, violence and independence, its dignified embodiment of the social outsider and the inclination toward rationality, social responsibility and collectivism. (3) (Incidentally, one can argue that Garfield's screen persona evolved and became defined through collaborations with various screen and theatre artists; most notably, Polonsky, Clifford Odets and Robert Rossen.)

John Garfield as the Reformed Street Kid

In his study of the Hollywood tough guy, Robert Sklar defines the cultural type that he calls "The City Boy" and suggests "the trait of dependence was a central aspect in [its] shaping." (4) Sklar goes on to say that the City Boy's "most important relation to women was not as lover but as son". (5) When we approach Garfield's most mature work, it is evident that unlike the roles of someone such as James Cagney (another subject of Sklar's study) whose attachment to family, in particular the mother, is expressed in a more primal way, Garfield's characters are often attached to family and mother figures through a body of values and the need for a supportive community. In comparison to the characters for which Cagney would become known, the Garfield screen persona is grounded, both morally and socially.

Non-filmic materials--such as fan magazines and film reviews--would reference Garfield's Lower East Side roots and help authenticate his onscreen characters. Biographies and contemporary articles portray a young Julie Garfield as an uncontrollable child with no interest in school, often engaging in street fights and joining gangs. In the promotional material for his first boxing picture, They Made Me a Criminal (1939), Garfield is recalled as a "one-time champ" and a former "Golden Gloves performer". …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.