John Garfield: The Doomed Hero

It is impossible to separate the life and art of John Garfield (Jacob Julius “Julie” Garfinkle, 1913-52).

Garfield was born and raised in a succession of tough working class New York neighborhoods (Lower East Side, Brownsville, Bronx), where he participated in street gangs. Uninterested in school, from a young age he did apply himself to two more physically active disciplines that would shape his life: boxing and drama. He sparred at a local gym, and took acting classes at school, which then led to more serious classes with the American Theatre Lab (under Maria Ouspenskaya), leading to his involvement with the Group Theatre. Following a small role in their production of old Eagle Guy (1934), he was cast in the lead in the original production of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing! (1935), which set him on his way. Odets also wrote Golden Boy (1937) for Garfield to star in, but the Group cast Luther Adler instead, casting Garfield in a smaller role. The disappointment induced him to go to Hollywood.

Garfield was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his very first film, Four Daughters (1938) with the Lane Sisters. He is better remembered for his second movie, however, Busby Berkley’s They Made Me a Criminal (1939) with the East Side Kids. Garfield was a transitional figure, at once in the mold of fellow Warner Brothers “gangster” actors like Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney, but also, as an early Method Actor, paving the way for the likes of Marlon Brando. He is associated with brooding anti-hero parts, often criminals or unlucky souls who find themselves in no-win situations. His best known film today is probably the original version of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), opposite Lana Turner. Other notable films include Jack London’s The Sea Wolf (1941) with Edward G. Robinson, John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat (1942), Odets’ Humoresque (1946) with Joan Crawford, and the groundbreaking Gentleman’s Agreement (1946), in support of Gregory Peck.

Garfield was a much-loved star but he had two Swords of Damocles hanging over his head throughout his short (dozen year) film career. The first was his past association with the ultra left wing Group Theatre, many of whose members were card-carrying Communists, some of them literally under orders from the Moscow party. Garfield was called to testify before HUAC, and his answers that he was himself not a Communist nor did he know any in Hollywood, failed to satisfy the committee and the industry. His name was published in Red Channels, leading to a blacklisting. Garfield took this opportunity to return to Broadway starring in productions of Peer Gynt and Golden Boy in 1952. But the second Sword lay in wait. For as a child, Garfield had contracted scarlet fever, which had weakened his heart. In mid-1952 it gave out under the recent strain, killing him at the young age of 39.

I recently re-watched his penultimate film The Breaking Point (1950), his umpteenth with director Michael Curtiz, and was amazed at how contemporary it felt. The feeling is similar to watching Bogart’s last films like The Harder They Fall (1956) — you’re seeing this ’30s and ’40’s era gangster star, in the dawn of a new era, in movies characterized by location shooting, franker dialogue and situations, and greater all around realism. Watching them flourish in their last films, you just KNOW they would have continued to be terrific in the years to come. But, as had happened to Garfield’s characters in so many films, time had run out.