March 4, 1913 – John Garfield:
”I lived in a bad neighborhood. I knew so many things a boy shouldn’t know. I did so many things a boy shouldn’t do.”
Before there was Sean Penn, Harvey Keitel, or Robert De Niro, even before Marlon Brando and James Dean, there was John Garfield. Mostly forgotten now, he brought an intense realism to film acting in the 1940s. He had an edge and a toughness that was well earned. Yet, just as Garfield’s career was at its apex, he became another victim of the notorious ”Red Scare” at the dawn of the 1950s. Garfield exuded a raw masculinity that hadn’t been seen before in film.
As a kid, I used to come home from school, let myself in with the key I kept around my neck, practice the piano, and then settle in for The 4:30 Movie on KXLY. I loved the film melodramas of the 1930s and 1940s. Those movies, featuring gangsters, cops and private dicks, were suffused with grit and authenticity. By the time I was 12, I had seen nearly the complete Warner Bros. catalogue with Errol Flynn, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart.
Garfield, an actor I saw in no more than six or seven pictures during my boyhood, left a really big impression. He was like Cagney, a tough guy from the streets of NYC, except with a deeper foreboding. I sensed that he had been wronged; yet I knew that he could take care of himself, that he would never submit to his oppressors, not willingly. I knew he was a fighter.
He was born Jacob Julius Garfinklel, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, and he grew up in poverty on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His mother died when he was just seven-years old, and he spent the rest of his childhood living passed around to various relatives.
As a kid, he joined a gang and was expelled from more than one school. But, his teachers at P.S. 45 saw something special in him. He was enrolled in a speech class to fix his stammer, and he was encouraged to take acting classes. As Garfield wryly noted:
”If I hadn’t become an actor, I might have become Public Enemy Number One.”
He made his Broadway debut in 1932, but Garfield’s big ambition was to join The Group Theatre founded by Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford. This bunch of young actors, writers, and directors, many of whom would become famous, were pursuing a bolder, more socially aware form of theatre.
His big break came with The Group Theatre’s production of Clifford Odets’ Awake And Sing (1935), about struggling Jewish family in the Bronx. Odets, who had known Garfield for years, championed him at first, but when he was passed over for the lead role, boxer Joe Bonaparte, in Odets’ next play, Golden Boy in 1937 (instead, he played Siggie, the cab driver, a supporting role), he was conflicted about whether or not to remain with the Group or go to Hollywood and become a star. Ironically, Garfield who had fought with his fists in the Bronx and had given up boxing for public speaking and acting, was not given the lead role when he had served as the inspiration for Odets. Bruised, he split for Hollywood before the play closed.
Warner Bros. even agreed to a provision in his contract with them that allowed Garfield to take time off to work on stage. For his first featured film role, in Four Daughters (1938), he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Warner Bros. started to build him up, but he was not easy to work with, rejecting roles in lesser films, even if it meant suspension. Garfield:
”I was suspended only 11 times. I served my time and took it like a sport. They taught me the business, and they made me a star. They took their chances with a cocky kid from the Lower East Side who still talked out of the corner of his mouth. I appreciate all that.”
When WW II began, Garfield tried to enlist, but was rejected because he had a heart murmur. Instead, he played servicemen in films such as 1943’s Destination Tokyo and Pride Of The Marines (1945). To support the war effort, he and his friend Bette Davis co-founded The Hollywood Canteen, a place where servicemen could go to dance and have fun. I am not certain that Garfield danced with the sailors before they shipped off, but I like to think he did.
After the war, his performances had a darker mood and volatility and brooding intensity. His performances in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Humoresque (1946), and Body And Soul (1947) still seem astoundingly good to me. If you compare Garfield’s adulterous killer in The Postman Always Rings Twice with Jack Nicholson’s in the steamy 1981 remake, Nicholson’s is erotic and highly charged, whereas Garfield’s Post is stamped with a much subtler type of sexuality. Even so, his performance pushed the envelope in 1946.
He was Oscar nominated for Body And Soul. But, along with Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, and Lee J. Cobb, plus 150 others, Garfield’s name was published in the notorious anti-communist brochure Red Channels in 1950.
Garfield was forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1951. He denied being a communist, but refused to name names, claiming he knew no communists in the industry. His unwillingness to rat on his friends meant his film career was basically finished.
The stress took its toll. He returned to NYC hoping to work on Broadway which had no blacklist. A week later he was found dead in his apartment, taken by a heart attack. He was just 39-years-old.
In Body And Soul, with a screenplay by blacklistee Abraham Polonsky and directed by name-namer Robert Rossen, Garfield refuses to throw a fight, losing his money but redeeming his soul.
Garfield had said that actors could never do their best work before they were 40-years-old. He left this world just a few months short of that milestone. I wonder how many great performances were missed because the Hollywood blacklist killed John Garfield.
A liberal Democrat and a patriot, Garfield was a hero in an era of cowardice. In the words of his friend Polonsky:
”Garfield defended his streetboy’s honor, and they killed him for it.”
His funeral was the largest in NYC since Rudolph Valentino’s, with over 30,000 fans crowding the streets outside of Campbell’s Funeral Home. Shortly afterward, the HUAC closed its investigation of Garfield, leaving him exonerated.
In The Exorcist (1973), directed by William Friedkin, the investigator played by Lee J. Cobb, Garfield’s pal from The Group Theater, tells the haunted priest, played by Jason Miller, that he looks like a boxer… like John Garfield in Body And Soul. At the end of The Exorcist, the investigator shows up at the house of Linda Blair’s possessed girl, too late to save the priest from the devil.