The Jewish Brando
John Garfield, the tough, underrated Hollywood star who would have turned 100 today, embodied Jewish pride
Body and Soul was a critical success. (Bosley Crowther ended his New York Times review by declaring, “Altogether this Enterprise picture rolls up a round-by-round triumph on points until it comes through with a climactic knockout that hits the all-time high in throat-catching fight films.”) It was also a commercial hit that proved to be domestic distributor United Artists’ top money-maker of 1947. The movie was nominated for three Oscars—including actor and original screenplay—won one, for film editing, and made possible a more radical follow-up, Force of Evil.
In Force of Evil, Garfield plays another poor kid who has risen up from Manhattan’s mean streets. Joe Morse is a slick, ambitious lawyer who implements a fix that will allow his criminal boss to consolidate his gambling racket by driving small numbers banks out of business. One of these banks is run out of a Lower East Side tenement by Morse’s delusional older brother Leo (Thomas Gomez), who is set up and killed.
An obvious art film, Force of Evil (which was voted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1994) was made with a surplus of shadows and a surfeit of colorful characters and is completely unambiguous in its insistence on capitalism as crime. (“Waddaya mean gangsters—it’s business,” one enforcer whines, nearly a quarter century before The Godfather.) The opening line “This is Wall Street” hangs over the dealings. Much of the action is overshadowed by the skyscrapers of New York’s financial district, while Leo’s neighborhood bank suggests nothing so much as a Ma and Pa candy store or a struggling dress factory.
Polonsky set his story during the Depression to provide motivations for the honest characters involved in the racket; most likely to placate the Breen office censors, he concocted a framing narrative. The narrative would unfold in flashback with Joe Morse giving testimony in the state rackets probe. Unavoidably recalling the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings of the previous year (and eerily anticipating the star’s own fate), the device was dropped in favor of Garfield’s voice-over explanation when the movie reached theaters in late 1948.
By then, Force of Evil lost approximately 20 minutes when Garfield’s failing studio sold the movie to MGM, which then released it as a B feature. Body and Soul, by contrast, was shortened by less than 10 seconds, but that small cut to the body cost the movie much of its soul, and thereby hangs a tale.
A few years ago, Annette Insdorf, Columbia professor and the author of Indelible Shadows, the first history of film and the Holocaust, forwarded me an email she had received from Chicago Police Officer Maurice Richards, regarding an apparent cut in the DVD he had recently purchased of Body and Soul. “It isn’t the money, it’s his way of showing,” the delivery man says when Charlie guiltily advises him that betting is foolish. The next 20 words—“In Europe, the Nazis are killing people like us just because of their religion. But here, Charlie Davis is champion”—are gone, leaving only his final statement, “and we are proud.”
The omission, Lt. Richards wrote, is “disgraceful, outrageous and deliberate. The anti-Nazi content and speaking out against the Holocaust has been purposefully removed from the film. New generations of viewers will never be able to see and appreciate the true legacy of this great work of art and Jewish heritage.” He further called for a “thorough investigation” of the deletion: “It is important to find out when, by whom, and if possible, why this was done.”
Prof. Insdorf made a number of inquiries on the lieutenant’s behalf. (I was one person she contacted and was able to ascertain that the change was not made for TV—the 16mm television print did have the missing 20 words.) Eventually, Patricia Hanson, of the American Film Institute, figured out that Republic Pictures Home Video had released two VHS versions of Body and Soul; the 1986 version included the complete dialogue while a 1992 “45th anniversary edition” (advertised as “digitally remastered from the original”) did not and was identical to the Artisan Home Entertainment DVD purchased by Lt. Richards. “Because of various controversies surrounding the film,” she noted, “it is very likely that the cut was made on the master decades ago.”
The most reasonable explanation for the cut was given to me by Dave Kehr, the extremely knowledgeable film critic who writes a weekly DVD column for the Sunday New York Times. The 1992 version was likely remastered from an export negative. Pointing out that a small studio like Enterprise had no overseas distribution, he theorized that whoever had licensed the movie from Enterprise in the late ’40s cut their negative out of deference to the West German market. No Jews, no Nazis, no Holocaust, no offense. In any case, the OliveFilms Blu-Ray, evidently made from the Enterprise negative, is complete, and the meaning of the movie as an expression of Jewish pride and solidarity—and Garfield’s significance as its embodiment—has been made whole.
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