Click here to subscribe to the
free Classic Movies Weekly
If there was ever an actor who has not received his fair share of attention from latter-day movie audiences, it's John Garfield. Blame it on HUAC, or anti-Semitism, or perhaps on the fact that he died before making a film in color. Whatever it was, it seems to me that it's time for him to be rediscovered.
Born Jacob Julius Garfinkle to immigrant Jewish parents living on New York's Lower East Side, Garfield turned a tough childhood to his advantage by using the street smarts he'd learned to win a New York Times debate contest. The prize was a scholarship, which he used to attend the Ouspenskaya Drama School.
After spending the Depression riding the rails, Garfield returned to New York and became one of the stars of Group Theatre, appearing on Broadway until he was turned down for the lead in Clifford Odets' Golden Boy. He left for Hollywood in 1938, and Warner Brothers saw something in him that reminded them of James Cagney. Jack Warner changed his name to John (he had already been going by the name of Jules Garfield, and has always been known as Juli to his friends). He scored an immediate success in Four Daughters (1938), getting his first Oscar nomination. He followed that with roles in They Made Me a Criminal, Daughters Courageous, Dust Be My Destiny, Four Wives, and Juarez (all in 1939), and Castle on the Hudson and Gold (both 1940), establishing a reputation as a young rebellious type. In 1941 he starred in The Sea Wolf, and Out of the Fog. Dangerously They Live and Tortilla Flat came in 1942; Air Force and Thank Your Lucky Stars in 1943; Destination Tokyo and Between Two Worlds in 1944. That same year he appeared in Hollywood Canteen, playing himself and co-starring with Bette Davis in the story of the organization the two of them founded to aid servicemen. Perhaps his most celebrated role came in 1946, when he co-starred with Lana Turner in the film version of the James M. Cain novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice.
More great roles followed with Humoresque (1946), Body and Soul (1947) -- another Oscar nomination -- and what has been called the ultimate noir, Force of Evil (1948), the only film directed by Abraham Polonsky before he was blacklisted. Taking a supporting part in Gentleman's Agreement (1947) was his way of helping to tell the story of American anti-Semitism.
He continued to create memorable characters until 1951, when the House Un-American Activities Committee decided to investigate him, based on his association with left-wingers, finally making an example of him because of his refusal to cooperate and name names. Though they failed to prove anything, he was still blacklisted. He died of a heart attack in May, 1952. He had always suffered from heart trouble, but his experiences with the witch hunt undoubtedly aggravated the situation.
John Garfield was a legitimate hero and a great actor, and does not deserve to be relegated to the second rank of classic stars. As Leonard Maltin has pointed out, Garfield never gave a bad perormance, and we agree. Please enjoy this tribute.
Part I: Introduction
Part III: Movie Reviews & Where to Find His Movies
Part IV: Photos, Art, and Posters