Over the span of a dozen years, John Garfield made a series of films that still impress today, thanks to the actor’s magnetic tough guy performances and brooding persona.
The former Jacob Julius Garfinkle, whose hundredth birthday would have been March 3, took on an array of demanding roles, always testing his formidable talents. Yet despite his career peaks, Garfield’s life was filled with tragic valleys as well.
The son of a Russian immigrant father who worked as a clothes presser, Garfield was born to poverty on New York’s Lower East Side. His mother died when he was seven years old, and he was sent to be raised by relatives. By his teens, Jacob, a poor student more interested in boxing than attending class, was influenced by a teacher who urged him to look into acting. The young man thereafter won an acting scholarship to study under the supervision of Maria Ouspenskaya, and hooked up with the Group Theatre headed by Lee Strasberg, Howard Clurman and Cheryl Crawford. At the legendary collective, the young thespian studied alongside the likes of Elia Kazan, Stella Adler, Clifford Odets and others who practiced “the Method” style of performance originated by Stanislavsky.
Strong reviews for work with the Group Theatre, in such plays as Waiting for Lefty and Golden Boy, brought the newly-rechristened John Garfield to the attention of Warner Brothers, who signed him to a multi-picture deal. Around that time, he also married childhood sweetheart Rebecca Seidman.
Garfield’s very first film assignment as the sardonic, failed musician involved with Priscilla Lane, one of the Four Daughters (1938) sired by music teacher Claude Rains, won him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
The attention catapulted Garfield to a lead role as a boxer accused of murder in Busby Berkeley’s uncharacteristically gritty They Made Me a Criminal (1939). The same year saw four other efforts starring the actor: Daughters Courageous, a reunion with Four Daughters co-stars Raines and Lane, as well as director Michael Curtiz; Blackwell’s Island, as a reporter out to expose penal corruption; Dust Be My Destiny, as a falsely accused ex-con who finds himself back in trouble with the law; and the epic biopic Juarez, in support as General Porfirio Diaz to Paul Muni’s title turn.
The pace did not let down, as Garfield starred in four movies in 1940 (including East of the River and Castle on the Hudson) and three in 1941 (including The Sea Wolf). His attempts to join the military, meanwhile, were halted when he was deemed 4-F due to a heart ailment. To support the war effort instead, the scrappy 5’7” actor took an active role with Bette Davis(with whom he had been romantically linked) in running the Hollywood Canteen, an outpost in Los Angeles for GIs on leave.
Usually playing the outsider looking in, whether in a war film, a gangster picture of a social drama, Garfield did some of his best work over the World War II era. He was loaned to MGM for Tortilla Flat, the adaptation of the heralded 1935 John Steinbeck novel. Here, Garfield turns in one of his favorite performances, playing Danny, the Mexican-American who shares his inherited house with his slacker friends. Spencer Tracy, Allen Jenkins, Frank Morgan and Hedy Lamarr (reportedly another paramour of Garfield) co-starred under the direction of Victor Fleming.
In Howard Hawks’ Air Force, he was a WWII aerial gunner with an attitude. In The Fallen Sparrow, produced by RKO, Garfield played a former political prisoner of the Spanish Civil War who comes to New York to track down the killer of the police detective pal he owed his freedom.
War themes permeated Garfield’s next few roles. He was a smart alecky, streetwise sailor behind Cary Grant’s cool submarine commander in Destination Tokyo; a journalist seeking the uncanny explanation behind his presence on a mysterious cruise ship in the supernatural drama Between Two Worlds; and as real-life, Philly-born WWII hero Al Schmid in The Pride of the Marines, the first film centering on returning war veterans.
“Jule,” as he was called by close friends, suffered a profound tragedy in 1945, when his six-year-old daughter died from severe allergic reactions after a picnic. The event took a tremendous toll on the actor.
To counter his sadness, Garfield jumped back into work. On loan to MGM, he starred in The Postman Always Rings Twice, a sizzling film noir based on the James M. Cain story. The performer played a brutish drifter who takes the job offer of kindly roadside diner owner Cecil Kellaway, and whose attraction to sultry boss’s wife Lana Turnerleads them to a torrid affair and a conspiracy to murder.
Wrote critic Bosley Crowther in the New York Times: “Mr. Garfield reflects to the life the crude and confused young hobo who stumbles aimlessly into a fatal trap. Miss Turner is remarkably effective as the cheap and uncertain blonde who has a pathetic ambition to ‘be somebody’. ‘The Postman’ appears no more than a melodramatic tale, another involved demonstration that crime does not pay. But the artistry of writers and actors have made it much more than that; it is, indeed, a sincere comprehension of an American tragedy”.
Still, Garfield coveted the sort of higher-profile leading roles that Warner gave to Bogart and Cagney. After shooting the gritty crime drama Nobody Lives Forever, and Humoresque, in which he plays a struggling musician romantically entangled with socialite benefactor Joan Crawford, the enterprising actor sought out of his contract.
WB wanted to re-sign the actor, but he decided to start his own production company. His first project was Body and Soul, in which he limned the role of a pugnacious Jewish boxer from the Lower East Side who falls in with a crooked promoter.
Penned The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther: “After all the assorted prizefight pictures that have been paraded across the screen—after all the pugs and muggs and chorus girls and double-crosses and last-round comebacks that we’ve seen—it hardly seemed likely that another could possibly come along with enough zing and character to it to captivate and excite us for two hours. Yet Body and Soul has up and done it…”
The film—something of a make-good, after having lost out on the lead role Odets had tailored to him in the original stage production of Golden Boy—earned the actor his second nomination for an Academy Award, this time as Best Actor. Garfield was employed by Daryl Zanuck and 20th Century Fox for his next effort. He played the Jewish soldier pal of Gregory Peck in Gentleman’s Agreement, Elia Kazan’s Oscar-winning look at anti-Semitism.
He followed with Force of Evil, a classic film noir directed and written by Body and Soul scripter Abraham Polonsky, spotlighting Garfield as a lawyer at odds with numbers-running sibling Thomas Gomez.
As the 1940s drew to a close, Garfield still managed to get top roles working as a free agent. John Huston’s political adventure We Were Strangers, made for Columbia, featured him as an American expatriate in Cuba attached to revolutionary Jennifer Jones. He essayed the role of a former jockey teaching his son the ropes of horseracing, while dodging his own past, in the Hemingway-inspired Fox production Under My Skin. He returned to Warners for The Breaking Point, a remake of To Have and Have Not, as he played a charter skipper enmeshed in illegal activities to help pay off his ship.
As the 1950s began, however, Garfield saw his stature as a leading man endangered. Polonsky and several others who worked on Body and Soul had been affiliated with the Communist Party, and were eventually blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Others, like director Robert Rossen, eventually spilled the beans, giving up the names of associates and friends who were communists.
Garfield was called on to testify in front of the committee in April 1951, but he refused to name friends who had communist ties or who he knew were party members (his wife was a communist, something Garfield never mentioned). He did, however, admit to being involved in left-wing interests and activities.
When asked if he knew people in the Communist Party, Garfield replied: “When I was originally requested to appear before the committee, I said that I would answer all questions, fully and without any reservations, and that is what I have done. I have nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to hide. My life is an open book. I was glad to appear before you and talk with you. 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.”
The shadow of the blacklist, however, took a toll on Garfield both physically and emotionally. There were rumors that a perjury charge would be leveled against him. Members of the media, such as Walter Winchell, turned against the popular actor—despite the fact Garfield raised lots of money for his country during World War II, ran the Hollywood Canteen, and appeared in two variety–style films to bolster American morale during WWII (Thank Your Lucky Stars and Hollywood Canteen).
The noir thriller He Ran All the Way was released in 1951. In the film, Garfield is a petty thief who botches a robbery and takes bakery worker Shelley Winters and family hostage. Director John Berry, a member of the Communist Party who sensed impending doom from the McCarthy witch hunts, urged Garfield to flee America for Europe. Berry landed in France, but Garfield, citing his love for his country, remained in the States. The ironically titled He Ran All the Way turned out to be Garfield’s last feature film.
The movie offers had dried up. According to a writer pal, Garfield “ran around in a violent, stupid kind of way” when he was unable to get work.
Garfield was preparing for a TV version of Golden Boy when he died of a heart attack in 1952. He was a few days into rehearsal of the production, which was to have co-starred Kim Stanley, when he passed away. His daughter later said that her father hadn’t worked for 18 months, and that his phone was tapped and home was bugged.
He was 39 years old.
Garfield’s name is not as big as Brando or Bogart or Cagney or Grant or Tracy or other contemporaries of his. But his talent and grit are amply displayed in the films in which he appeared, showcasing a genuine star and powerful screen presence.
John Garfield left us an impressive body of work over a relatively short period. Sadly, it was the blacklist that made him buckle and go down for the count.