The Tragedy of John Garfield

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By Maureen Lee Lenker, Classic Film Correspondent

Largely forgotten today, John Garfield was one of Hollywood’s finest actors working in the 1940s.  Nowadays, his name does not have the caché of a John Wayne, a Humphrey Bogart, or a Cary Grant.  But Garfield, born Julius Garfinkle was a force to be reckoned with onscreen and a huge star in his own day (as an example, his funeral marked the largest turnout for a celebrity death in New York City since Rudolph Valentino’s service).  Perhaps best remembered for his sizzling turn opposite Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Garfield made a career of playing rough-and-tumble men of the street — boxers, gangsters, and men from the wrong side of tracks – characters that drew on Garfield’s own upbringing on the streets of the Bronx.

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Before Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Paul Newman (certainly well before Robert De Niro and Al Pacino) Garfield brought “method” acting to Hollywood.  His gruff approach to roles and mumbling delivery with the distinct inflections of his Bronx upbringing defined his performances.  This made him one of the first to break the mold of the Trans-Atlantic upper- crust tones that so frequently dominated studio system acting styles.

As a child, Garfield found a refuge in acting as a space to channel his aggression and rage.  In 1934 Garfield joined the Group Theater, co-founded by his friend (and playwright) Clifford Odets.  The Group Theater was an assemblage of actors, directors, playwrights, and more that sought to treat acting and actors as a pure ensemble; its ideology and the content of many of the plays it produced led the collective to be labeled as a purveyor of Marxism which proved a detriment to many of its members under the Hollywood Blacklist.  While a member of the Group Theater, Garfield appeared in Odets’ dramas “Awake and Sing” and “Waiting for Lefty;” plays which engage directly with ideals of socialism and leftist thought.

By the end of the 1930s, Garfield had caught Hollywood’s eye, and he signed a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers.  He received rave reviews for his first film Four Daughters (1938) in which he portrayed a reckless young musician with a chip on his shoulder.  Buoyed by the response to Garfield in Four Daughters, Warner Bros. began developing material for him specifically beginning with 1939’s They Made Me a Criminal in which he plays a world champion boxer wrongly accused of murder.

With the outbreak of World War II, Garfield immediately went to enlist but a lifelong heart condition prevented his participation.  Instead he joined forces with Bette Davis to found the Hollywood Canteen as a haven for servicemen in Los Angeles to enjoy dinner, dancing, and an opportunity to mingle with Hollywood stars.  Garfield dedicated himself to entertaining the troops overseas and in Hollywood.  He made bond-selling tours and starred in a series of patriotic films aimed to support the war effort, including Pride of the Marines (1945), which found him going “method” as a soldier blinded in combat.

After the war, he starred in some of his best known films, including The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Humoresque (1946), in which he plays a violinist distracted by the charms of Joan Crawford.  Despite being big enough to play solely leading roles, in 1947 he took a supporting role in Gentleman’s Agreement opposite Gregory Peck because he believed so strongly in the film’s message exposing anti-Semitism in America.  The film would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Garfield was also a force to be reckoned with on the production side – he was one of the first Hollywood stars to found his own production company when his contract with Warner Bros. expired.  The company, Enterprise Productions, was founded as an attempt to encourage work by humanist artists.  Enterprise produced the socially conscious dramas Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil (1947); Garfield was nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of boxer who will win at any cost in Body and Soul.

The late forties also saw the wane of Garfield’s career with the rise of McCarthyism and the actions of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).  Garfield supported the Committee for the First Amendment, protesting the actions of HUAC and opposing government investigation of political beliefs.  More problematic than this was his association with the Group Theater and numerous actors, writers, and directors who were purported to have ties to the Communist Party.  Garfield was a target of HUAC because his prominence as an actor made him a more visible scapegoat than many of the writers and directors targeted by the Hollywood Blacklist.

When called before HUAC to testify, Garfield resolutely refused to name names and stated, “”I have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of.  My life is an open book.  I am no Red.  I am no ‘pink.’  I am no fellow traveler.  I am a Democrat by politics, a liberal by inclination, and a loyal citizen of this country by every act of my life.”  His actions led him to be blacklisted and effectively ended his onscreen career.  Garfield made his last appearance in a film in 1951’s He Ran All the Way, as Nick Robey, a thief who gets embroiled in a hostage situation as an attempt to escape arrest.  In addition to Garfield, the film’s director, John Berry, and writer, Dalton Trumbo, were also blacklisted – making this film a last stand of many artists under siege by the government’s communist witch-hunt.

Like many blacklisted artists, Garfield returned to the stage to try to make his living, appearing in a production of Odets’ Golden Boy, playing yet another boxer.  However, the stress proved to be too much for Garfield and he died of a heart attack at only thirty-nine.  Today, Garfield has become a symbol of the ultimate cost of the Blacklist – with fans linking it to both the loss of his career and his life.  Garfield’s death was more complicated than that – he suffered from a heart condition all his life, and he was enduring numerous stresses, including separation from his wife – his heart attack appears to have been triggered by a strenuous round of tennis the morning of his death.

Still, whether or not the career-ending stress of the Blacklist contributed to the end of John Garfield’s life, he remains a tragic figure cut off in his prime. Recipient of two Oscar Nominations and acclaimed for his lived-in performances, he was an actor with many more years to give, who left us all too soon.  Today, his filmography stands as a testament to his unique determination and style as an actor.

To talk more about Garfield, tune into Chillin’ with Larry Magen at 11pm EST this Thursday, January 26th, and discuss He Ran All The Way with me!


Maureen Lee Lenker

Classic Film Correspondent, Chillin’ with Larry Magen

Maureen Lee Lenker is a writer, actress, and freelance journalist. She has written for The Hollywood Reporter, Turner Classic Movies, BitchMedia, LA Weekly, and more.

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