John Garfield - Tuesdays in February
John Garfield, celebrated as TCM Star of the Month for the third time, created a gallery of compelling and memorable characters during a meteoric and all-too-brief career. Before his premature death at age 39, Garfield made some 30 major film appearances, and TCM is showing most of them. Before Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando, James Dean and Paul Newman, there was Garfield as the lonely outsider, the troubled rebel, the beautiful young actor who captivated film audiences and helped put a new face on American acting. With his tousled hair, smoldering expressions and ever-present cigarette, Garfield created an indelible image.
Garfield’s roots were in the Group Theatre, which had its heyday in the 1930s and pre-dated the Actor’s Studio as a training ground for students of the Stanislavsky Method. He established a new type of leading man – usually working-class, often alienated from society and sometimes on the wrong side of the law. As the title of his 1939 film would have it, They Made Me a Criminal. Garfield himself once claimed “If I hadn’t become an actor, I might have become Public Enemy No. 1.” However, audiences sensed that underneath it all his characters were sensitive and sympathetic.
Garfield was born Jacob Julius Garfinkel on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on March 4, 1913, to parents who were Russian Jewish immigrants. His father was a clothes-presser of limited means, and his mother suffered from poor health. She died when Garfield was seven and his brother Max was two. The boys lived with various relatives in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx until their father remarried and settled in the West Bronx. There, Garfield became involved with several youthful gangs before becoming interested in acting, thanks to a sympathetic teacher who noticed his tendency to stutter and encouraged him to memorize speeches and deliver them in class.
While still a young student Garfield won a statewide oratory contest sponsored by The New York Times. He also trained as a boxer. At some point during his youth, he contracted scarlet fever and suffered heart damage, although the problem wasn’t diagnosed until his adulthood. Eventually Garfield won a scholarship with the (Maria) Ouspenskaya Drama School and later served an apprenticeship with Eva Le Gallienne’s company. He made his Broadway debut in 1932 in a short-lived play called Lost Boy, billed as Jules Garfield. (His lifelong nickname was “Julie.”)
Clifford Odets, a close friend of Garfield since their early days in the Bronx and a founder of the Group Theatre, insisted that Garfield be cast in the Group’s production of the Odets play Awake and Sing in 1935. Odets wrote the boxing drama Golden Boy with Garfield in mind for the leading role, and both were dismayed when he was instead cast in a supporting part in the 1937 Group production.
That disappointment reportedly led Garfield to accept an offer he had been refusing from Warner Bros. to sign a contract for film work. The studio changed his name to John Garfield and introduced him to movie audiences in Four Daughters (1938), a touching drama focusing on the romantic problems of four motherless sisters (the three Lane sisters and Gale Page). For his arresting performance as an embittered misfit who loves one of the girls (Priscilla Lane), Garfield was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. The film, also nominated as Best Picture, was a big hit for Warner Bros. and established Garfield as one of the studio’s budding stars.
Some members of the Group Theatre reportedly were bitter about Garfield’s success and accused him of “selling out” to Hollywood. But Odets was proud of his friend and described his rise from the slums of New York to movie stardom as “one of the most cherished folkways of our people.”
Four Daughters was such a success that Warners produced several sequels, including one – Four Wives (1939)– that included footage of Garfield even though he had met a tragic end in the original film. The same year, the studio also produced Daughters Courageous, a film about four sisters, using most of the original cast of the first movie with Garfield playing a similar but differently named character.
In Blackwell’s Island (1939) Garfield gets solo star billing playing a reporter who investigates a crime racket inside the New York prison. One of the Lane sisters, Rosemary, provides romantic interest. Garfield next took a supporting role in Juarez (1939), playing Porfirio Diaz, a supporter of Mexican president Benito Juarez (Paul Muni) and a future dictator of the country. This proved to be his only attempt at a period film.
Dust Be My Destiny (1939) finds Garfield in more familiar territory, vividly playing an embittered prison inmate who goes on the run with his girlfriend (Priscilla Lane) after being accused of a murder he did not commit. Warners’ new star continued to perfect his classic portrayal of the anti-establishment outsider in such films as They Made Me a Criminal (1939), with Claude Rains and The Dead End Kids; Castle on the Hudson (1940), with Ann Sheridan and Pat O’Brien; Flowing Gold (1940), with O’Brien and Frances Farmer; and East of the River (1940), with Brenda Marshall.
The lightweight romance Saturday’s Children (1940), based on Maxwell Anderson’s much-filmed play, offered a change of pace with Garfield cast as an idealistic inventor working out life’s problems with his bride (Anne Shirley).
The Sea Wolf (1941), a screen version of the Jack London novel, has Garfield as the working-class seaman who memorably clashes with Edward G. Robinson as a brutish ship’s captain. Ida Lupino, a fitting match for Garfield, costars as an ex-con who finds her way on board and falls for him. Lupino and Garfield re-teamed for Out of the Fog (1941), an adaptation of an Irwin Shaw play that had been performed on Broadway by the Group Theatre.
MGM borrowed Garfield from Warner Bros. for Tortilla Flat (1942), a prestige picture costarring Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr and based on the highly regarded book by John Steinbeck about a group of paisanos living in Monterey, CA. Garfield won critical praise for his performance as the lovable Danny.
During World War II, Garfield’s heart problem kept him out of the military, but his gutsy persona was ideal for service pictures. He was effective at his home studio in Air Force (1943) and Destination Tokyo (1943) and on loan-out to RKO for The Fallen Sparrow (1943).
Warners cast him as the cynical newspaperman in the surreal drama Between Two Worlds (1944), based on the Sutton Vane play Outward Bound; and in two star-heavy patriotic tributes, Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) and Hollywood Canteen (1944). Garfield, along with Bette Davis, was instrumental in founding the organization of the latter title, which served as a club that provided entertainment, food and dancing for servicemen.
Next came two examples of Garfield creating great chemistry with a leading lady. In Pride of the Marines (1945), he plays real-life war hero Al Schmid, who was blinded in combat, with Eleanor Parker in a tender performance as his understanding wife. At MGM, Garfield and Lana Turner form a sizzling pair in the first English-language version of James M. Cain’s story of adultery and murder, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).
Back at Warner Bros., Garfield costarred with Geraldine Fitzgerald in the film noir Nobody Lives Forever (1946). His last film under his Warners contract was Humoresque (1946) in which he plays a troubled violinist, with Joan Crawford as his older patroness and lover. Clever staging made it seem Garfield is actually playing the violin when it is really Isaac Stern’s hands and arms reaching around him as he is photographed in close-up.
Freed from his often-conflicted association with Warner Bros., Garfield co-founded a production company, The Enterprise Studios. His first film under the new arrangement, the boxing drama Body and Soul (1947), is considered one of his best. For his performance as a pugilist beset by a variety of temptations, Garfield was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor. In 2014, the Houston Boxing Hall of Fame named Body and Soul as the “Greatest Boxing Movie Ever.”
At 20th Century-Fox, Garfield played the supporting role of hero Gregory Peck’s Jewish friend in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), a highly regarded “message” movie about anti-Semitism, directed by Elia Kazan. Abraham Polonsky, Oscar-nominated for his Body and Soul script, co-wrote and directed Garfield’s next picture, Force of Evil (1948), which was produced by Enterprise. This one was a film noir released through MGM, with Garfield playing a lawyer who is corrupted by his association with gangsters.
We Were Strangers (1949), a Columbia Pictures release directed by John Huston, takes a dramatic look at political violence in Cuba in 1933, with Jennifer Jones as a Cuban revolutionary and Garfield as the Cuban-American who loves her. The Breaking Point (1950) is a critically praised remake of 1944’s To Have and Have Not, with Garfield in the Humphrey Bogart role and a script that adheres more closely to the Hemingway original. Patricia Neal costars. He Ran All the Way (1951) was Garfield’s final film. Released through United Artists, it is a violent film noir casting him as a petty thief and costarring Shelley Winters.
In between his movie roles, Garfield had continued to pursue his first love, the stage. His Broadway credits included Skipper Next to God (1948), The Big Knife (1949) and Peer Gynt (1951). His final acting assignment was realizing the dream role that had been written for him: the boxer Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy, which he performed in a Broadway production in the year of his death, 1952.
In the McCarthy era of the late 1940s and early ‘50s, because of the tone of some of his films and the left-leaning politics of associates including his wife, Garfield found it difficult to find work in Hollywood. In 1951, he was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Writer-director Abraham Polonsky later remarked, “The tragedy was that Garfield wasn’t accused of anything. He was a street boy with a street boy’s sense of honor. And when they asked him to give the names of friends he refused. They blacklisted him for that.”
Garfield died of a heart attack in the Manhattan home of actress Iris Whitney on May 21, 1952. He had once claimed that an actor did not come into his own before the age of 40; his death occurred 10 months before his 40th birthday. Many of Garfield’s friends felt that the blacklisting had caused, or at least hastened, his death.
Garfield had married his childhood sweetheart, Roberta Seidman, in 1935. They were separated at the time of his death. They had three children: Katherine, who was born in 1938 and died of an allergic reaction at age six; David (1943-94); and Julie, born in 1946. The latter two became actors, and Julie Garfield has also won recognition as a painter and acting teacher.
Julie Garfield has appeared on TCM to introduce her father’s films, and in 2003 narrated the TCM documentary The John Garfield Story. In that film, Garfield admirer Danny Glover summed up the appeal of his fellow actor: “What was wonderful about John Garfield’s acting was that you felt that, in some way, his story was your story.”
By Roger Fristoe