Monkey on My Back (1957)

Directed by Andre DeToth

Cinematography by

Maury Gertsman

Monkey on My Back is a 1957 biographical film directed by Andre DeToth, starring Cameron Mitchell as Barney Ross, a world champion boxer and World War II hero (based on a real-life titleholder). The movie is heavily fictionalized, but both the movie character and the biographical character become addicted to opiates due to war conditions. In the climax of the film, Ross faces a challenging battle to recover from his addiction.

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In the 1930s, boxer Barney Ross wins the welterweight championship, then meets chorus girl Cathy Holland as he celebrates. Sam Pian, his trainer, learns that Barney placed a $10,000 bet on himself to win the fight. Cathy, a single mom of a young girl, Noreen, gets to know Barney, but is unaware of his gambling habit. When he loses to Henry Armstrong, he owes thousands to a bookie named Big Ralph and is forced to work in Ralph’s bar to pay off the debt.

Barney joins the Marines when war breaks out. He gets Cathy to marry him before leaving for the South Pacific, where, at 33, his heroism at Guadalcanal saves another soldier’s life and earns Barney a medal, the Silver Star. But he also contracts malaria, for which a medic prescribes morphine. Back home in Chicago, he is given a job with a public-relations firm by the father of the man whose life he saved. Barney is now addicted to morphine, however, and incurs a huge debt to Rico, a drug pusher. Cathy catches her desperate husband breaking into Noreen’s piggy bank, so she moves out.

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Barney becomes suicidal. But when his wife returns to inform him that Rico has been arrested, he vows to beat his addiction. He checks into a hospital in Kentucky while the whole country becomes aware of his plight. Four months later, Barney is permitted to leave, rejoin his family and resume his life.

Dope Addiction, a perpetually relevant story

8/10
Author: bkoganbing from Buffalo, New York
25 January 2013

Monkey On My Back tells the story of Barney Ross, former lightweight and welterweight champion who became a war hero with the US Marines and then after fighting the Japanese became a bigger hero fighting drug addiction. At that time films like this one, A Hatful Of Rain and The Man With The Golden Arm were making the American public get acquainted with the evils of drug addiction.

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One of the key elements of Barney Ross’s story that was left out was his religion. The man was an orthodox Jew who was the son of a Talmudic scholar whose father was shot to death in a holdup. Barney was born Dov Rosovsky and the Rosovsky had tough going after the death of the family patriarch. Ross rejected the formal religious teachings of his father, but of his heritage you could never make any kind of anti-Semitic crack in his presence. For reasons of a market in some ultra red state territory, that component of his story was eliminated, but it is key to understanding him.

He also worked his way out of poverty first by being a low level strong arm guy for Al Capone in Chicago. After that he decided to go legitimate in the use of his fists and graduated to boxing. The managing team of Sam Pian and Art Winch played here by Jack Albertson and Richard Benedict turned him into a champion of two divisions. That is where the film picks up Barney Ross’s story.

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Psychologists could best tell you why some folks have an addictive personality and what could and what will always addict people. Ross as is shown here was a free spender who loved to gamble and was constantly in hock. Considering how some fighters end up, he was almost lucky that World War II came along and he joined the Marines.

On Guadalcanal he became a hero and also caught the malaria which could only be treated as far as the pain with morphine. That part of the story is perpetually relevant because after every war we seem to breed a generation of dope addicts.

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Cameron Mitchell got his career role in Barney Ross and could have contended for an Oscar if this independent film from United Artists had been properly publicized. Out the same year was A Hatful Of Rain that did have performances so nominated by Don Murray and Tony Franciosa. Mitchell’s holds up every bit as well as those two. In fact 1957 was his career year as the highly acclaimed Christmas story All Mine To Give also came out with Mitchell. This should have led to bigger roles and bigger pictures, but Cameron Mitchell was off in a few years to Europe to do Peplum, spaghetti westerns, and other films, some of them pretty dreadful.

Dianne Foster does well as his loyal wife with Kathy Garver as her daughter who Mitchell adopts. And Paul Richards as the dope dealer Rico will make your skin crawl with his evil.

And this film is dedicated to Barney Ross, a champion in life as well as the ring.

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Exceptional…especially for when it was made.

8/10
Author: planktonrules from Bradenton, Florida
20 February 2012
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This is the true-life story of a famous boxing champion, Barney Ross (Cameron Mitchell). The film picks up in his later years as a fighter–when he’s at the top of his game. Barney should be a happy man–and he is. But there also is trouble brewing, as Barney is an inveterate gambler. Even when it costs him his wife because of this, he’s slow to admit he’s got a problem. Fortunately, he eventually kicks the habit and joins the armed services. The film doesn’t show it, but he was used early in his military career to sell bonds–just like Joe Lewis and various celebrities. He is eventually sent to Guadalcanal–a hellish place and probably the worst battle of the Pacific, as it drug on for many months. In the process, he shows his heroism and earns a silver star–but he’s also wounded and suffering from the effects of PTSD (they don’t really talk about this too much in the film). As a result of this and his very addictive personality, he soon begins hooked on morphine. Much of the rest of the film is his horrible struggle to kick his addiction.

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The film is very well done. Despite a lower budget, Cameron Mitchell turns in a nice performance as the boxer. And, like “A Hatful of Rain” (which also came out in 1957), it does a great job of showing the horrors of this sort of addicted life. Well worth seeing.

By the way, Barney Ross was a boxer during the late 20s and through the 30s–yet it looks like 1950s in the movie. A very minor gripe, but I did think this was kind of funny.

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Barney Ross: Drug Addict!

7/10
Author: kapelusznik18 from United States
24 July 2014
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

***SPOILERS*** True and heart lifting story of light and welterweight boxing champion Barney Ross, Cameron Mitchell, who’s roller coaster life in and out of the ring is the stuff that legends are made of. We first get to see Barney broken and alone enter a federal or veterans hospital in Kentucky to get treated for his addiction to morphine that he devolved during WWII in the battle of Guadalcanal where he was both wounded and contracted malaria. The movie starts at the Polo Grounds in NYC with Barney winning a 15 round decision over welterweight champ Jimmy McLarnin who took the title from him the year before. Celebrating his victory at a local nightclub Barney meets his future wife single mom and show girl Cathy Holland, Dianne Forster, and he’s off to the races, Belmont Aqueduct & Saratoga, with her and her six year old daughter Noreen, Kathy Garver, enjoying life to the fullest and gambling his money away. That’s until three years later when in a title match he runs into the windmill like “Hammering Henry” Armstrong who takes his welterweight title from him in a brutal 15 round decision at the now defunct Madison Square Bowl in Long Island City.

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Retiring from boxing Barney later does his patriotic duty at age 33 and joins the US Marine corps when he ended up in the fighting in the South Pacific. That ended up getting Barney addicted to morphine that destroyed his as well as his wife Cathy’s life. It’s then after Barny returns state side to a hero’s welcome that the story of an all-American success story turns into an all-American nightmare. Craving for morphine and not getting it from the VA turns Barney into a down and out junkie who goes so far of raiding his 12 year old step daughter Noreen’s piggy bank for money to buy the stuff. Getting involved with drug pushers like Rico, Paul Richards, doesn’t help either. Rico like a monkey on Barney’s back squeezes the poor man for every cent he has leaving him totally broke and unable to pay his bills as well as rent and food!

With Barney’s wife Kathy threatening to leave him if he doesn’t straighten his sorry life out Braney comes clean and turns himself over to the government, or government hospital, to get help before his addiction to morphine ends up killing him. With the love and support he gets from both Cathy and the hospital staff, as well as thousands of his fans and admirers, Barney kicks his morphine habit where in four month of going cold turkey he’s completely drug-free. We see at the end of the film Barney leaving the hospital a free, drug free, man to start his life over again with Cathy waiting to greet him. With all the battles he had fought in the ring the one Barney had with drug addiction was the hardest he ever went through. And in the end he licked it even though the at the start the odds of him winning were greatly against him!

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