A child of the New York streets, John Garfield's early years were troubled; and yet it was that very troubledness which brought about the man being celebrated today. Born Jacob Julius Garfinkle---and called Julie all his life---Mr. Garfield was the first child of impoverished first-generation Americans, David and Hannah Garfinkle. After losing his mother at the age of seven, little boy Julie lived a revolving-door kind of life for the next several years, as he was passed from one relative to another. Eventually, street gangs became his family, ditching school became his habit, and delinquency became his life. Mr. Garfield said of himself, "If I hadn't become an actor, I might have become Public Enemy Number One."
In order to curb his delinquency, Julie was enrolled in a special school, one which catered to "problem kids." The founder of that school--- Angelo Patri---held an educational philosophy different from all other educators; in addition to allowing for creative expression, he believed in a curriculum tailor-made for each pupil. Of Mr. Patri, John Garfield said, "For a lost boy to be found, someone has to do the finding. Dr. Patri found me, and for reaching into the garbage pail and pulling me out, I owe him everything. The good things that came my way would not have been possible, but for that sweet, funny man." It was at Dr. Patri's school that Julie's penchant for acting was encouraged and allowed to bloom. Seeing promise in the young man as he performed in one-act school plays, both Dr. Patri and the school's dramatics instructor, encouraged him to become an actor. Eventually, with the goal of acting in mind, young Julie dropped out of high school in order to pursue instruction with a theatre group, for at that point in his life, theatre---not film---was where his sights were set.
Though Julie loved the stage and enjoyed many years of success there, working with such theatre greats as Otto Kruger, Claude Rains, Paul Muni, Lee J. Cobb, Clifford Odets, Franchot Tone, and Elia Kazan, eventually Hollywood came calling, and he signed on with Warner Brothers. His first screen role, which reunited him with veteran stage performer Claude Rains, who offered advice as Julie transitioned into films, was in 1938's Four Daughters. From his first appearance on screen, he brought with him that moody, cynical, outsider-looking-in persona which would follow him throughout the bulk of his career. Audiences were wild about him...and the anti-hero was born.
The 2-time Academy Award-nominated John Garfield was an amazingly gifted actor, giving a truly brilliant performance in nearly every single one of his 31* films. I have no doubt that he was just as terrific in his stage performances as well. It's too bad there are not films of his plays---I would love to see them.
Of Mr. Garfield's 31* films, I have seen all but four, and two of those I will be catching when TCM airs them on March 4th. There is a bittersweetness to watching all 31* films; yes, I will have seen his entire filmography, but after that, that's it. There will never be a new film to discover, and I find that to be very sad. Here is a sampling of just a few of his films.
Pride of the Marines (reviewed HERE) is the film which began my love affair with Mr. Garfield. As one who is passionately interested in all things related to the Second World War, I have long been on a quest to see all the (war) films made during the actual war years, and it was through that endeavor that Mr. Garfield entered my life. Despite not having a clue who John Garfield was, I tracked this film down, and immediately, I was impressed. His portrayal of U.S. Marine Al Schmid was completely terrific; I thought he was nothing short of spectacular and, thus, began seeking out more of his works. As I did so, I became more enamored of this very under-appreciated actor, and he rapidly made the climb to "beloved" status on my favorite actor list.
The Breaking Point (reviewed HERE), which has the distinction of being my favorite Garfield film, is the second film adaption of Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not. According to Mr. Hemingway, "The Breaking Point was the best screen adaption of any of his novels....and Harry Morgan as written had never become anything beyond an idea, but John Garfield made Harry a person." I call that high praise indeed!
The Breaking Point shows a bit of a loving, paternal side to the ordinarily rough-and-tumble, chip-on-the-shoulder John Garfield, which is one of the reasons the film strikes such a chord with me. Due to the types of roles he usually played, such a soft side was rarely seen, which makes it difficult to imagine Mr. Garfield as a man capable of love, affection, and tenderness. It's easy to imagine that he (the man, not the actor) was as tough and hard in real life as he was in most of his roles, yet The Breaking Point gives a tiny glimpse into that rarely-seen softer side. I love the film for that reason. Plus, I love the character of Harry Morgan...and the way---as Mr. Hemingway said---John Garfield brought him to life.
Body and Soul (reviewed HERE) is the film for which Mr. Garfield received his only lead actor Academy Award nomination. It's the story of a man who finds great success on the prizefighting circuit, yet the success comes with the price of his very soul. With a corrupt manager dictating his every move, our hero finds himself having to enter the ring with men of questionable health and even to throw a fight if told to do so. After discovering that people in his childhood neighborhood---despite being poor---have bet on him in a fight he has been instructed to lose, he has a crisis of conscience and must decide if he will do what he's told and throw the fight or if he will defy the powers-that-be and give it all he's got. Though all Mr. Garfield's performances were first-rate, his work here in Body and Soul is, easily, some of his absolute best.
Though John Garfield was one of many stars to make an appearance in the 1944 film Hollywood Canteen, the real Hollywood Canteen was much more important to him. Even before Pearl Harbor brought about U.S. involvement in the war, Julie was part of a group of performers entertaining at bases in the Caribbean. Finding great satisfaction in the endeavor, he came up with the idea that the film industry ought to have its own venue, right there in Hollywood...and, with the help of Bette Davis, the Hollywood Canteen was born. Open nightly, the Canteen was a place where GIs rubbed shoulders with the movie stars, who served them refreshments and entertained them. Garfield was quite the arm-twister when it came to booking acts at the Canteen, even managing "to break down the resistance of some of the veterans...Tracy, Cooper, Cagney."
Sadly, as the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) years dawned, Mr. Garfield got caught up in the ugliness of them. Called to testify before the committee, he refused to name names in the hearings and, thus, found himself blacklisted in Hollywood. Despite knowing that failure to give the committee what they wanted (names of those who might have Communist sympathies) would undoubtedly harm his career, he would not be budged. While others might cave to the pressure, John Garfield did not, and the sad result was that he would pay with his career and, ultimately, his life. While stage work was available, he was blacklisted in Hollywood and his film career was finished. The stress of the blacklist---coupled with the bad heart he had had for most of his life---took its toll, and at the too-young age of 39, Julie succumbed to a fatal heart attack, leaving behind a wife, two young children, and thousands of grieving fans. (He had a third child too; however, that first-born daughter died of an allergic reaction in 1945 at the age of 6). Also left behind were 31* films, some of which are available on DVD, but many of which are not...making it very hard for modern audiences to have an opportunity to get to know this incredible actor...another tragedy in an already-tragic situation.
So, here's to you, Mr. John Garfield, on your 100th birthday. You were a completely sensational actor who always gave a terrific performance. I completely adore you and will always consider you one of my absolute favorite actors. Even though you died nearly a decade before I was born, you live on through your wonderful films. And, in the words of George Eliot, "Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them." Since we have not forgotten you (nor will we ever!), you do, indeed, live on! Thanks for enriching my life with so many incredible films!
This post is part of the John Garfield 100th birthday blogathon. To read all the other wonderful entries, go HERE.
NOTE: All information and directly quoted material are taken from Body and Soul: The Story of John Garfield, by Larry Swindell, William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1975. All photos have been obtained from various online sources, mostly The Golden Age of Hollywood and Doctor Macro. I do not claim any of them as my own.
* The 31 films does not include uncredited roles, nor Four Wives, which includes footage from the earlier Four Daughters.