“Crushed… body and soul.”
The Code that Hollywood followed in its early days sometimes drives me nuts. Sometimes it is interesting to think where movies would be today had there been no Code enforced over eighty years ago. I think they would be a lot dirtier today but that is just my opinion. The Code really screwed up a lot of stories. I have seen a handful of films where the story was moving along so well and then the Code came in and just totally screwed it up. One such film has been Body and Soul written and directed by Oscar Micheaux.
The film opens up on a clipping from a news paper that a “Negro Detective” named Black Carl is looking for an escaped prisoner from Georgia.
Reverend Isaiah Jenkins (Paul Robeson) asks a saloon keeper for money as contribution to his church otherwise he will have to make a sermon about the “Dry Bones” and warn his parishioners to stay away from the saloon. Later that night Isaiah goes home drunk. The next day a stranger named “Yello Curly” Hinds comes into town. He goes to the saloon and finds out that gambling goes on in the church after Sunday services. At church Isaiah sees Yello in the front row and flashes back to when the two were cellmates in jail. After church Yello tells Isaiah that he had no idea that he (Isaiah) was hiding out in the town. The only reason he came through town was to look for a girl for a club. Walking out of church Yello sees a young girl named Isabelle.
Isabelle lives with her mother in a small apartment. She knows that Isaiah is a horrible man. She is seeing Isaiah’s much nicer and quieter brother Sylvester (also Robeson). Sylvester wants to marry Isabelle but her mother does not like him because his brother has been telling malicious lies about him. The mother is infatuated with Reverend Jenkins and wants Isabelle to marry him.
Later in the day Isaiah comes to the house. Isabelle had been out with Sylvester walking through town. When she comes home Isaiah tells her he wants to save her soul because, as he says, his brother is no good. When the mother leaves Isaiah hurts Isabelle. When the mother comes back she cannot understand why Isabelle is so upset. The mother goes to the store and Isabelle collapses. When Isabelle comes to she decides to leave. She leaves a note to her mother that she took the money she had been saving to buy a house. The mother runs out of the house frantically looking for her daughter.
Isabelle is down on her luck in Atlanta. Her mother finds her. Isabelle confesses she never had the money. She ran away because the mother never would have believed her had she told her that Isaiah had taken the money. The mother flips out on Isabelle for saying something against Pastor Jenkins. Isabelle tells her mother about the time she and Isaiah had been caught in a storm and had to go to a cabin in the woods and he attacked her. She says he also attacked her at their house but that time he attacked her to tell him where the money was. He told her the money was blood money because the mother cleaned clothes for other people. Isabelle had threatened to tell everyone about him. He told her to leave for Atlanta.
The mother thinks back to seeing Isaiah getting a ride in a fancy car being driven by a white man with Yello. She also thinks back to how distressed her daughter had been when she came home that one day.
At church that Sunday, Isaiah gives the “Dry Bones” reading. The mother comes in and tells the congregation that Isabelle has died because she could not handle keeping Isaiah’s secret. The entire congregation gets up and attacks Isaiah. That night Isaiah comes to the mother’s house to beg for her forgiveness and she forgives him. He leaves and runs into the woods. Someone catches up to him and Isaiah kills the poor man.
Now here is where the ending is ruined by the Code… since a priest could not be shown as being a bad man Micheaux had to go back and film an awful ending where the entire story was only a dream the mother had. Isabelle is alive and happy with Sylvester. She comes in and tells her mother that Sylvester has made something and he will be rich. They all live happily together in a nice big house.
Body and Soul was very interesting. The story was great and the ending just blew the whole thing. There was so much anticipation to see what would happen to Isaiah and then the damn Code just blew it to shreds. Too bad a directors version will never be released it would be nice to see the real ending. Besides that the story held my attention. It is always sinister to see a supposed man of God who is one of the worst people. Micheaux’s writing and direction were great. I have always wanted to see one of his films and Body and Soul did not let me down. I am looking forward to seeing more of Oscar Micheaux’s films. Body and Soul is currently available to view in full on Youtube and I highly recommend seeing it.