Body and Soul. The Siren didn't need to see it again, but then again, she did. The first time she saw it, she loved John Garfield. The second through third or fourth time, James Wong Howe's cinematography killed her. Has there ever been a fight sequence better than the finale? Raging Bull quotes its every aspect, ramps up the realism, sends the blood and sweat flying, but still can't touch it.
But this time the Siren watched, and Canada Lee tore her heart out of her chest. Lee's character, Ben, serves as the ethical anchor for Garfield's ambitious fighter. That wasn't a new role for African Americans in the movies; Mammy serves the same purpose in Gone with the Wind. The role of the black angel on the white character's shoulder persists to this day, as a matter of fact. But Lee reaches beyond the character, to meet Garfield as another man, equally yearning for success, equally bitter about his treatment. Ben's description of what it was like to win a fight, to walk down Lenox Avenue and bask in the admiration, becomes a window into the yearnings of all people for respect. What a shot of adrenaline it must have been in 1947, to see a black man form a genuine friendship with a white man on screen.
What the Siren wouldn't give to see Lee's stage performances as Bigger Thomas or Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi.
As a belated Martin Luther King Day post, or early for Black History Month, a bit about the great, tragic Canada Lee. Here is Otto Friedrich:
He became an actor, a passionate actor at a time when blacks were supposed to be amusing...nobody ever forgot seeing him as the punch-drunk fighter in Garfield's Body and Soul. Shortly after that, his name appeared in the mass of hearsay flushed out of the FBI files in the course of the spy trial of Judith Conlon. 'The drivel that has come from the so-called secret files of the FBI,' Lee called it at a press conference in 1949. 'I am not a Communist...I shall continue to help my people gain their rightful place in America.'
That's what they all said. The next time Canada Lee came up for a TV role, he was barred by the sponsor, the American Tobacco Company. Over the next three years, he was barred from about forty shows. 'How long, how long can a man take this kind of unfair treatment?' he asked the editors of Variety.
Friedrich says a dead-broke Lee finally took part in a "public denunciation" of Paul Robeson, but apparently there is some dispute about that. Historian Glenda E. Gill, for example, quotes Lee's wife Frances as saying the actor flatly refused when urged to denounce Robeson (scroll to page 128; the whole excerpt is worth the time). In any event Lee got a part in a British production, Cry, the Beloved Country. He and Sidney Poitier were admitted to South Africa only after director Zoltan Korda applied for permits to bring them along as his indentured servants. Friedrich again:
It was only a temporary reprieve, and the curtain came down again. 'I can't take it any more,' Lee told Walter White of the NAACP after a few more months of unemployment. 'I'm going to get a shoeshine box and sit outside the Astor Theater. My picture is playing to capacity audiences and, my God, I can't get one day's work.' White counseled caution and patience, and Lee, all full of rage and desperation, accepted that counsel. A few months later he was dead, of high blood pressure, at forty-five.He had such presence--Canada Lee held your gaze, even in a picture like Lifeboat. In that one he is ostentatiously granted a vote on a life-and-death matter, but he refuses to use it, leaving the big choices to the white folks. Playing scenes like that must have stung Lee, a lifelong civil rights activist, but when the camera is on him, he takes back the screen. The scene where he recites the 23rd Psalm could be another of the era's patronizing touches: "Look at the simple spirituality of the Negro--how childlike, how heart-warming." But Lee keeps his head up, his voice calm and sonorous as he becomes, for that moment, the strongest man on the boat. His detractors had one thing right--Lee was a master of subversion.
P.S. A documentary about Canada Lee, featuring interviews with his 86-year-old widow Frances Lee Pearson, is scheduled for release March 8. The Siren hopes it will come to a venue where she can see it.