Tuesday, September 1

John Garfield

In this day and age he is pretty much forgotten.  What a shame.  I'm guessing if one were asked to name the 10 best actors of the 40s, his name would not be among them.  Not only was he one of the best actors of his day but there had really not been anyone quite like him.  Several were to follow who knew how to work it like he did, but he was something to behold in his time.  If one wants to discuss good acting in the 40s, somewhere right at the beginning of the conversation one should mention John Garfield.

His dark, rugged good looks, working-class demeanor and wise-ass swagger would often put him in outsider roles on the big screen... gangsters, boxers, soldiers, heart-breakers.  The persona was dazzling.  He was a perfect fit with the crowd at Warner Bros, a natural successor to some of its male stars... Cagney, Robinson, Raft, Bogart, but he outscored them on a couple of points... he was younger and better-looking.

Garfield was a cocky Jewish kid born in 1913 New York's lower East Side waterfront, a tough area.  Soon enough he would be  fighting and breaking whatever laws he could get away with.  In his adult life, while he was regarded as tender-hearted, endearing and thoughtful, there was never any doubt that he had a chip on his shoulder.  He was born with the name Jacob Julius Garfinkle and was always called Julie, even after Warner Bros changed his name to John Garfield.

He was raised by his father, a clothes-presser and part-time cantor, after his mother died when Julie was seven.  Her death and two other events stood out for him in his childhood.  He had scarlet fever which damaged his heart to such an extent that he was turned down by the Marines for active duty.  He was also sent to a school for problem children where he was introduced to boxing and acting.  It was thought the boxing would re-channel some of his aggressive street tendencies, like being a part of a gang, and acting would help his stammer.  A teacher thought he had a natural acting talent and put him into school plays.  He also signed up for the debating team, winning a prize or two, and hatching a life-long love of liberal politics which he loved to debate.

He began taking acting lessons at a drama school and appeared in a number of its plays.  He got on with the American Laboratory Theater and studied under Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya.  The Lab provided the introduction to the Stanislavsky Method in the States.  Its radical, challenging environment thrilled Garfield.

Before making his Broadway debut in 1932, Garfield made like a hobo.  He wanted to see how the disenfranchised lived so he hitchhiked and hopped freight trains across the country until he got to the Pacific Northwest where he picked fruit and did some logging.  It was a high-spirited adventure with tales of which he later regaled his New York pals.  One of them was the writer-director Preston Sturges who turned Garfield's tales into the film, Sullivan's Travels (1941).

In 1935 he married his only wife, his childhood sweetheart, Roberta, the mother of his three children.  She was a communist.  Garfield said he never joined the party but his marriage, his liberal friends, his movies written by liberals, his frequently-expressed ideas would one day put him in a situation that many would say contributed to his early death.

He joined the famous (or infamous, depending upon your point of view) Group Theater, a liberal bastion of iconoclasts, radicals, troublemakers and brilliant producers, directors, writers and actors.  Garfield's longtime friend, playwright Clifford Odets, wrote the play Awake and Sing and insisted Garfield have a role.  The young actor was a sensation which brought about the Hollywood types looking for a new type of actor.  Garfield politely turned them all down... he was, after all, an actor of the theater.

Odets wrote the part of Joe Bonaparte, the young violinist who becomes a boxer in Golden Boy expressly for Garfield.  When the part was given to another actor, Garfield was so incensed he decided to take Warner Bros up on its offer to be an indentured servant for seven years.  His contract was written with the stipulation that he could have time off every year to do a play.  It wouldn't quite work out that way but then Garfield never quite presented himself as a servant either.  He was responsible for many of the gray hairs that suddenly began appearing in Jack Warner's head.

I've always thought what Garfield sold was tough and vulnerable and the fact that most everyone was buying was evident with his first film, Four Daughters (1938).  It is the story of a family of, duh, four daughters, all musically-inclined, all gooey as taffy, all on the brink of romance.  Into this home comes one suitor who is the antithesis of all those he surveys.  It is John Garfield basically playing John Garfield... tough, vulnerable, moody, mouthy, with a lyrical sadness, overly-sensitive about being from the wrong side of the tracks.  Hollywood was spellbound.  It didn't hurt the film that three of the four sisters were, indeed, played by real-life acting sibs, Priscilla, Lola and Rosemary Lane.  Gimmicky perhaps, but it brought the folks in and Garfield had them yammering about him months later.  Four Daughters would be remade in 1954 as Young at Heart starring Frank Sinatra and Doris Day.

It was just after making his first film that he heard Columbia was going to make Golden Boy.  He begged Jack Warner to loan him out for the chance to play that role that was originally written for him but Warner refused.  Garfield was very bitter when he heard a virtually unknown William Holden got the role

Wasting no time in capitalizing on what they thought Garfield would do for the studio, he went immediately into They Made Me a Criminal (1939).  What a title for a Garfield movie if there ever was one.  And he got to play a boxer!  He is a street-smart, tough mug who's been unjustly accused of a murder and must fight his way to innocence.  As the galpal who helps him out, Ann Sheridan was a great match for Garfield.  The Dead End Kids were also along for added flavor.  It was a hoot.

In the next two years he made nine films, none of them particularly outstanding as I see it.  He was miscast in Juarez, made films with a couple of the Lane sisters, more with Ann Sheridan.  This is such a weighty collection of so-so films that it's a wonder Warners wasn't thinking of sending him packing.  But they still had faith in their wonder boy.  He was electrifying and the fan mail for him was one of the studio's largest.  They just had to find the right projects.

Jack London's seagoing mystery, The Sea Wolf (1941), is given superb treatment (many said better than the book), courtesy of ace Warners director, Michael Curtiz.  Garfield and Ida Lupino are refugees who board Edward G. Robinson's boat and discover his cruel streak.  All three actors were no less than stellar.  This was followed by Out of the Fog (1941), again with Lupino, only this time Garfield returned to his gangster ways... the public loved him more a bit outside the law.

In 1942 he was loaned to MGM (about as different from WB as two studios could be) to star with Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr in Victor Fleming's version of John Steinbeck's novel, Tortilla Flat.  It fell a little flat for me perhaps because the leads were all playing Mexicans or Portuguese and while some scenes worked quite well, the overall process didn't pull me in.  None of the characters were particularly likeable either.  The story of a poor man who inherits two homes only to have his deadbeat friends take them over was popular with the public.  Lamarr, never known for her great acting chops, did a credible job here.

Garfield, Davis, Jane Wyman, Jack Carson at Canteen

In 1942 the Hollywood Canteen opened and both Garfield and Bette Davis would publicly say that their involvement in it made them as proud as anything they ever accomplished.  Davis commented that one day she was in the WB commissary when her buddy Garfield stopped by to say that he realized a lot of servicemen passed through Los Angeles without the chance of seeing a movie star and he thought that should be changed.

They barnstormed what could be done and came up with a location that could accommodate a stage, a large dance floor and a kitchen and service areas.  The lure was that actresses would appear every night and dance and chat with the boys.  Maybe they would alternate that with working in the kitchen or serving sandwiches and in this capacity actors also joined in. 

It was enormously successful and Davis (especially) and Garfield deserved high praise.  While all of Hollywood joined in, Warners made a 1944 feel-good movie of the same name and poured all their contract stars into it.

Garfield may have missed his chance to serve his country during WWII but he sure made up for it via Warner Bros.  Air Force and Destination Tokyo, both 1943, and 1945s Pride of the Marines were not only quite good war films but Garfield was splendid in all three.  Destination Tokyo was particularly fascinating because it costarred Cary Grant, an unusual actor to pair with Garfield but all worked out very well.  More importantly than his war films, Garfield visited the troops around the world as often as he could.

I was always fond of Between Two Worlds (1944) because it was an eerie but thoughtful fantasy about dead people aboard a strange ship headed for... where?  The title tells you a little something.  The story unfolded layer by layer as passengers learned they were dead.  Garfield, of course, played a creep.  In real life he was rather infatuated with his costar, Eleanor Parker, and tried desperately to bed her.  He mused that he slept with most of his leading ladies but could never conquer Parker. 

Garfield and Turner....  grrrrrrrrr

His next four films are the ones for which John Garfield is best remembered.  First up is arguably his best, a fabulous film noir, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1945).  We will discuss it more in detail a bit later but suffice it to say that the story of a drifter and a roadside café owner's wife was ssssteamy.  The two lead actors had to exude sex and few would doubt that Garfield and Lana Turner more than filled the bill.  It is unquestionably the best she ever was and he helped her get there.  There should be little doubt that Turner was one of Garfield's conquests since her reputation was the same as his.

In 1945 his eldest daughter, 6-year old Katherine died of an allergic reaction of some sort and friends say their buddy Julie was never the same.

Humoresque (1946) is on the tube all the time.  I recommend you catch it if you can... it contains wonderful performances from Garfield and Joan Crawford (the first film she made after her Oscar-winning performance in Mildred Pierce).  Garfield (with the larger role) plays a superb violinist who can't seem to latch onto a decent gig and Crawford is a wealthy patron of the arts who becomes his sponsor.  And a lot more.  On screen and off.  Crawford was Lana before Lana was Lana.  This was such a glossy, sudsy opus that Garfield must have thought he was back at MGM.

Body and Soul (1947) was important in Garfield's life on several counts.  He returned to something he knew a bit about.  The story of a boxer who runs roughshod over those closest to him and an unethical promoter who changes his life.  Character actress Anne Revere was exceptional as his doubting mother, Lilli Palmer also wonderful as his love interest and Canada Lee great as his trainer.  More on Mr. Lee at the end.

Another important item associated with Body and Soul is that it was the first film Garfield produced under his new Enterprise Productions (he would employ leftist talent).  Like many actors at Warners, he was becoming antsy to do quality work.  Enterprise would help him do that... for awhile. 

The third point of interest is that during one of the fight scenes Garfield tore a heart muscle from which he never fully recovered.  And a final, upbeat note is that he received an Oscar nomination for best actor.

He took a costarring role in Gentleman's Agreement (1947) because it caused a lot of talk and the game was upped for everyone who appeared in it.  Gregory Peck starred as a journalist masquerading as a Jew in order to cover a story on anti-Semitism.  Dorothy McGuire was his fiancée whose doubts are paramount to the story and to the ending.  Garfield sheds some light on the Peck-McGuire relationship for her and sets the tone for what the core of the film is all about.

Anne Revere was back, too, only this time she played Peck's understanding mother.  And heaping praise to Dean Stockwell for one of his great kid roles.  Additionally, Garfield was directed by his old Group Theater pal, Elia Kazan, who, in a few short years, would walk down the same dark streets as Garfield.

Garfield with Dorothy McGuire & Elia Kazan

Martin Scorsese is one who has hailed Garfield's next film, Force of Evil, as one of the finest examples of film noir.  Its writer-director, Abraham Polonsky, whose future would be derailed by the blacklisting, intended it as an indictment of dog-eat-dog American capitalism.  It was an Enterprise production so it was special to Garfield.  He played an unethical lawyer who gets involved in the numbers racket to help out his older brother who's in trouble.  Character actors Thomas Gomez and Marie Windsor were dazzling in parts larger than they usually had.

One of my favorite Garfield roles was in Breaking Point (1950) based on Hemingway's story, To Have and Have Not.  Yes, yes, that was the name of the 1944 Bogart-Bacall film as well, but while based on the same Hemingway novel, only the title was kept and the story reworked.  Breaking Point is the work as Hemingway wrote it.  A charter boat captain resorts to shady deals in order to keep up payments on his boat.  It was a type of role Garfield could have played while he was sleepwalking.  Phyllis Thaxter as his worn-out wife and Patricia Neal as his feisty mistress were both winning.

After Breaking Point, Garfield and Warner Bros parted ways.  He was definitely happy about it and perhaps they were as well.  They had suspended him 11 times during his seven years at the studio because of his refusal to accept roles.  And while we're at it, the part of Bill Sampson in All About Eve (1950) was written with Garfield in mind but Gary Merrill was hired instead.  Novelist Nelson Algren wanted Garfield for the title role of The Man with the Golden Arm but it would be made in 1955 with Frank Sinatra.  Even on Broadway he had thought he would play Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire and then pulled out due to family issues.  The part of Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront was written for him but by the time of its filming, Garfield wouldn't be around to perform.  I wonder if Marlon Brando ever sent him a thank-you card or two?

In 1951 his life took a turn.  He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee.  It was the height of the communist hysteria that swept the entertainment community on both coasts.  It was the time of the Korean War.  It was the time of the Rosenberg trial, a couple accused of spying for the USSR.  A blacklisting would begin that would ruin people's careers and lives.  To catch a big fish like John Garfield was just what was needed.  When all was said and done, he was the biggest name they got.  It's not difficult to see why they chose him.  Aside from the fame there was the noisy posturing, the metaphorical daring to take a poke at him.  There was his connection to the radical New York theater scene... his liberal friends... his liberal work... his liberal production company... that communist wife.

He was asked to name names... out anyone who is, was or might have been a commie.  Certainty was not always a prerequisite.  They just wanted some names.  He refused.  Not that anyone was surprised.  One thing his mean streets values instilled in him was no squealing.  It was as low as you can go.

He was just finishing a movie as all of this played out.  He Ran All the Way (1951) had him playing another thug role, that of a man on the run from police after a botched robbery, who holes up in a family's apartment and keeps them captive.  Costar Shelley Winters, who knew Garfield from his early New York days and shared his political views, thought he was difficult to get along with during the filming and obviously quite troubled.  He and his wife separated.  She was critical of some ways he was handling himself and wanted to distance herself.

Afterwards he realized the film work had dried up.  He had nothing scheduled and no one was calling.  One fortunate thing did happen in this morass of unhappiness and that was a call to the Broadway stage to play Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy.  Finally, after all these years he would get to play the role that was written for him.

In early 1952 he saw his friends turning informants... Kazan and Odets.  Garfield began drinking more, becoming paranoid.  Friends thought he was suffering psychologically and physiologically.  On May 9, his friend and former costar, Canada Lee, 45, died of a heart attack.  He, too, was blacklisted, having been hounded by HUAC. 

It's been said that Garfield had planned on recanting some of his previous testimony and whether that is true or not, it never happened because on May 21, 1952, John Garfield died of a heart attack.  Many would have said he died of a broken heart.  He who always spoke of how much he cared about the social injustices inflicted on society and now he was dead at 39, some said, because of injustices inflicted on him... and that bad heart.

His movie career ended the same year my true discovery of movies began.  I discovered him in a political science class and once I did, I knew I had to learn more.  I eventually caught up on all his films and when I first became acquainted with the internet, I looked up all I could on him.

I felt so sorry for him at the end of his life and I have always had a soft spot for him.  He was always the tough guy, scrappy yet  vulnerable.  His films were socially critical ones, which I have long-admired.  He left his mark.  He was a golden boy.

Next posting:

Movie review


  1. Great post to a great actor...I am the biggest John Garfield fan there is...and yes he is forgotten by today's audiences..but not by me!

  2. I was so taken in by him and am delighted to have heard from his biggest fan there is. Thanks so much for writing, Dennis.