I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The president of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. It’s not just big names, it’s anyone. How everyone is a new door opening into other worlds. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet…
Welcome to our new weekly feature: Six Damn Fine Degrees. These installments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation, in the loosest sense. One contributor writes about the film Six Degrees Of Separation, to which we owe the partial quote above? The next piece might be about Will Smith, who is in it. Or Sydney Poitier, whose son Smith’s character claims to be. Or John Guare, who wrote the original play. Or even Pam Grier, who was snubbed for a Best Actress Oscar, as was Stockard Channing. And it needn’t be just people. It can be plays, music, books, films, video games, anything we, as culture baristas, feel we should write about. The only rule is that it connects – in some way – to the previous installment. We hope our readers will enjoy our forays into interconnectedness. As the man said: it’s a small world, after all.
To my mind, the film Body and Soul is indicative of the kind of story its lead, John Garfield, really wanted to tell. He had just co-founded The Enterprise Studios, his own production company, and this was his first picture under the banner. He plays Charlie Davis, an impoverished kid, who tries to better his life by going into professional boxing. The mob-controlled and destructive sport makes him affluent at first, but ultimately corrupts him, when mob boss Roberts, played by Lloyd Goff, asks Charlie to throw a fight. Though the story seems trite nowadays, the screenplay by Abraham Polonski gives the dialogue a spontaneity that was grist to John Garfield’s mill: he was one of the first leads to bring method acting to the screen. “Do you think I like the idea of waiting around for the whole world to make up its mind what to do with me?” Charlie says at one point in the film, and Garfield may as well be talking about himself.
Garfield insisted on boxer-turned-actor Canada Lee to play the role of Ben Chaplin, a boxing champ whose health is ruined by the sport. Much like Lee himself, whose boxing career had cost him the sight in his right eye. Lee, however great, was deemed too black by the money-men. He was a serious and passionate actor, when the mores of Hollywood at the time dictated that people of colour were supposed to be droll, and little else. As film historian Karina Longworth tells it, when Garfield was asked in a production meeting to just “make the champion white”, he responded with two words: “Fuck you.” It would be impossible to imagine the film having the impact it did without Lee, who is incredible in it. It makes you wish you were able to see him on stage, in Native Son, the play which propelled him to fame.
It is tempting, in retrospect, to see Body and Soul almost as a portent of what was to befall both men, who died within weeks of each other. Their health gone, their careers ruined by the virulent anti-communist hysteria which, within its generalized racism, had more than a hint of anti-Semitism, and was flagrantly and unapologetically anti-African American. At the time, however, little of this fate would have been clear to fledgling producer Garfield who, finally independent of studio meddling, was making the film he wanted to make: a progressive film, at least for the time. Progressive, not only for giving a good role to an actor of colour, but also in its almost anti-capitalist take on the common man being tempted with exorbitant wealth, the price of which is his very soul.
Body and Soul became one of the top grossers of 1947, according to Variety, earning US$3,250,000. A hit, both critically and commercially. Today it is mainly known as being one of the best early pictures about boxing. Despite the hoary plot and the incongruous ending, its brilliant cast and beautiful photography by James Wong Howe manages to reach towards a certain transcendence even now.
Much more could be written about John Garfield, but for this first installment let us wrap up our Six Damn Fine Degrees. Though he was born Jacob Julius Garfinkle and rebranded John Garfield by the studio: his friends and family called him… Julie. Which places me at Six Degrees from this once famous movie star.