When most people think of a hero, they think of a combat soldier, or an ancient mythological Greek or Roman god, or even a DC or Marvel Comic strip superhero. Very few people think of an actor as a hero. This post is a tribute to John Garfield: An actor, artist, Hollywood star and hero. Even though he did not win an Oscar, he was nominated twice, once for Best Supporting Actor (Four Daughters, 1938) and once for Best Actor (Body and Soul, 1948).
Was he robbed or stubbed? I don’t think so. I think he just ran out of time and had too many obstacles in his way. However, this tribute goes beyond praising his work and contributions to the Arts. It is also a tribute to him as a great human being who stood strong when most of those around him faltered, failed, and at times betrayed him and others. In life, Garfield performed heroic deeds.
I am so happy that KG at KG’s Movie Rants is hosting the Unsung Hero Blogathon. It celebrates various actors who should at least be praised for their contribution to their craft and Art, especially if they did not win an Oscar. You can read more about other deserving actors using the following link:
I think of Garfield Even Though
His name and image is unrecognizable by most audiences today and very little credit is given to him for much of his work. Despite this, John Garfield’s contributions to movie making and acting are still felt around the world today. He was one of the trail blazers for removing the rigid controls of the old Hollywood studio system. On screen, he introduced new acting techniques that are still practiced by actors and appreciated by audiences today. Possibly, and more importantly, his life emphasized the importance that all artists should be “citizens of the world.” They should not be silent when confronted with inhumane or immoral actions by people or governments. Especially, those who disregard Constitutional rights or even the human rights of others. An example of how relevant this is today, think of Meryl Streep’s moving speech at the 2017 Golden Globe awards. In case you missed it, I put the link of the video in the References.
I thought of Garfield After Streep’s Golden Globes Message
There were conflicting opinions about her message. Some praised her for her courage to speak out; and, there were others who complained that her job is to entertain and keep quiet. On Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc…, you will find artists and actors exercising their freedom of speech. While at the same time you will still find people, under the delusion, that they own these outspoken celebrities and can control them because they are fans and buy tickets to see them. Some even go so far as to personally threaten them or a love one if they continue to speak out. Unfortunately, actors, from the 1920s though 1960s, were controlled and silenced by the old studio system using tactics similar to these.
What Does This Have to do With Garfield? Like One of His Noir Films, Let’s Start at The End
On May 21, 1952, Garfield passed away in a two room apartment while sleeping in a friend’s bed. A robust, charismatic mega-star in the prime of his life. He was 39 years old. Ironically, he once said, that an actor doesn’t mature until they reach the age of 40. Thanks to the HUAC (House of Un-American Activities Committee), he was blacklisted and not permitted to work in Hollywood for over a year. Yet, the fates smiled on him; and, he landed a lead part in Broadway play. This is a part that he had badly wanted, even before he became a Hollywood star.
His friend, Clifton Odets, who came from the same Jewish neighborhood, wrote a play “The Golden Boy,” for him. This happened years ago, when Garfinkle was still a struggling actor in New York City. Odets’ play was centered on a talented violinist and boxer, Joe Bonaparte, who must make a fateful decision between money or integrity. This decision will alter his life forever. Tragically, in 1951, John Garfield will also make a decision that will irreversibly change the course of his life.
Although, Odets pushed for Garfinkle to play the lead, he failed to secure that part for his friend, Julie (Julius Garfinkle). Many believe that the disappointment of not getting the lead part in Golden Boy is what drove Julie to sign a contract with a major Hollywood studio. When Garfinkle signs a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers, they will change his name from Jacob Julius Garfinkle to John Garfield. The studio thought Garfinkle sounded too Jewish. Considering his parents are Jewish; and, they immigrated to the United States from the Ukraine to escape the Russian pogroms, it is safe to say; his name sounded Jewish. By the time Julie (Jack Or Dutch were his other nicknames) reached his 20s, the world was struggling through the Great Depression, The Great Dust Bowl, Hitler’s rise to power, segregation, and anti-Semitism (which was the norm of the day, even in America).
What was Garfield really like?
The contract that Garfield signed with the studio had a surprising and extremely rare option added to it. The option allowed Garfield time off from making movies to do stage work. Garfield believed that work in the theater is creating Art; while work in Hollywood was simply making money. The studio did not want to add this option; but, Garfield proved to be a strong negotiator.
Maybe, this skill developed while he was still on the debate team in a special school: He came in 2nd in the City Wide Debate Completion sponsored by the New York Times. While growing up in poverty and living from house to house, he also developed a stammer; but, that didn’t stop him from taking drama and speech classes at this special school (P.S. 45). Nor did the stammer, keep him from becoming a Leader of a street gang. As Garfield explained: Growing up in a place where there is a gang on every street, you learn that safety is in numbers.
When Julie was seven years old, his mother passed away from complications of a childbirth, two years earlier. This is when his only sibling, Max, was born. They were basically raised by relatives in three different city Burroughs: Lower east side of Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn. Their father was indifferent to the boys when they were little. He did remarry and fortunately, they placed Julie in a school for troubled teenagers. Before these classes, his only positive outlet for his frustrations was in a boxing gym. He was quite good at it and even boxed professionally for a short awhile. Eventually, he will replace boxing with a new and different kind of excitement. An experimental acting class. This class used unique techniques which later became known as The Method.
How did he seem to others?
He was a friend, a husband, a father, a son, an athlete, and a wonderful story-teller. To some people, he could be abrasive at times; yet, for others they remember his soft, soothing voice, and his completely disarming smile. Some, who knew him better, would describe him as funny, adventurous and definitely loyal. Many would say he was passionate about anyone or anything that he cared about. Others would say he had a wonderful imagination and a creative mind. Regardless of his skills in negotiating deals or charming people, his passion was in acting; and, with the spirit of a true artist, he found himself at odds with the poorly written scripts and/or produced movies that the studio would forced upon him.
Hollywood And So Much More
Before he left the New York stage to go to Hollywood, he took a year off to ride the rails as a hobo and working his way across America doing various jobs. He met all kinds of people and learned about their lives and surviving the Great Depression. Many of his tales of that adventurous time would later be depicted in a movie by a friend, Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1940).
In Garfield’s first movie, Four Daughters (1938), movie goers had a new experience. They seen something they had never seen on-screen before. They did not see an actor pretending to be a character; but, an artist who was the character. For the first time on screen “The Method” is explored and successfully utilized on film. His craft and his skill as an actor did not go unnoticed. He received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor from the Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Movie clip of Garfield’s break out movie: Four Daughters
In a similar way that Garfield was influenced by James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, many actors will be influenced by his performances. Actors like James Dean, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Cliff, Harvey Keitel, Robert Di Nero, Al Pacino, Sean Penn and many more followed his lead and learn The Method. If it were possible to combine all their faces together into one face; I imagine that I would still see John Garfield’s face.
A Dream Deferred, Again
Later, as a Hollywood star, John Garfield, had the opportunity again to play the part that he knew he was born to play, Joe Bonaparte. This opportunity came not on stage; but, as a movie based on the play. Again, the fates refused to smile upon his desire to play his dream role. Warner Brothers refused to loan him to Columbia Pictures to make the movie. Due to artistic disagreements, Garfield refused to make movies that he deemed as crap. So, he cheerfully endured 11 suspensions. Warner Brothers found a way to add salt to the wounds of his suspension by not allowing him to have his dream role. In fact, it went to newcomer William Holden. It became his break out picture which earned him the nicknames of Golden Boy or Golden Holden. Eventually, the studio won out and forced Garfield to make some “B” movies that turned out to be much better than they were intended, thanks to his talents; but still, they were “B” movies.
Patriotism And WWII
When WWII began, Garfield tried to enlist. He was turned down because it was discovered that he had a damaged heart. As a child, he became ill with Scarlet fever which was not diagnosed at that time. Disappointed but still not giving up, he wanted to help in the war effort. So, he, fellow film star Bette Davis and Jules Stein (president of the Music Corporation of America) opened the Hollywood Canteen. It fed and offered entertainment for all Allied soldiers (women and men). It had signed up over 3000 Hollywood volunteers who waited tables, worked the kitchen, danced with or just performed a little show for the servicemen and women. Most military personnel stopped by just before they “shipped out.” He also toured with the USO to entertain troops overseas and promoted the buying of War Bonds to support the war effort. In addition, he also made some very impressive war movies that praised the American soldier during the war.
After The War: A New Independence
In 1946, just after WWII ended and the Cold War begun, Garfield’s contract with Warner Brothers ended. Instead of signing another contract with another Studio, he decided to go independent and start his own production Company called Enterprise Studio. He was one of the first actors to do this. Maybe not so ironically, the first film project was a boxing movie, Body and Soul (1947).
Many critics and Garfield fans hail this movie as a masterpiece. It is considered by some critics as the best boxing movie ever made. Garfield portrays a boxer, Charley Davis, who battles to the top while losing his values, principles, and integrity. This is a classic Noir film. It begins with Charley reminiscing about his past and the his regretful decisions. This film will influence future movie makers of boxing movies like Martin Scorsese of Raging Bull and Sylvester Stallone of Rocky.
To make the gritty, in your face, realistic boxing sequences, James Wong Howe, cinematographer, used a hand-held camera and moved around the actors on roller skates. It is no wonder why Francis Lyon and Robert Parrish won the Oscar for Best Cinematography, Editing. The movie was also nominated for two other Academy Awards: Best Screenplay (Abraham Polonsky – later blacklisted) and Best Actor (John Garfield). This will be Garfield’s second Academy nomination.
For the casting of this movie, Garfield pushed and demanded that a black actor, Canada Lee, portrayed Ben Chaplin. Lee added authenticity to his role as a boxer; since, he used to professionally Box and had 13 KOs (Knock Outs) to his credit. Hiring Lee was a bold and controversial move at a time when segregation was still Law and the cultural norm; and, the Civil Rights Movement will not begin for another eight years.
Modern Day Witch-hunt, HUAC: A Bit of History. For those of you, who know all about this part of American History, please feel free to scroll pass
Although this was the beginning of the Cold War, before and during World War II, many Americans and intellectuals were bedazzled by the ideology of socialism. Socialist Russia was our ally who fought with us against Fascism. In defense of these people, socialism does sound attractive, in theory. So, if someone offered an open-minded individual a Socialistic petition to sign, during the war years, which promised some working class equality: Most artist and college students would sign it; however, this does not make them a communist.
Once WWII is over and the fear of Fascism is defeated, another fear will take its place, the Red Scare. This Cold War with the Soviet Union will mostly be fought overseas and with spy hunts everywhere. Fear does very weird things to people who otherwise would never dream of lying or hurting another human being.
Even Shakespeare would be shocked by the “Web of Lies” that were weaved in order to deceive and protect oneself from the accusations of “Being Red!”
There were over 300 names Blacklisted from the Entertainment Industry. Of those names listed as having communist connections, only one, used to be, a communist party member. It is interesting to note, most of them were in fact, Jewish (70%).
If there had been a real threat, they should have been arrested as spies. The only people arrested and sent to prison were the few who refuse to lie or who refuse to “cooperate.” For this, they were, ironically, charged with contempt of
the law Congress.
The Hollywood Ten: a bit more History
The Hollywood Ten (9 writers and 1 director/producer) were convicted and sent to Federal prison for not being spies; but, because they did not admit to it. They refuse to name names and cut a deal like Chambers, a real spy. To protest this miscarriage of justice by Congress, an action group, Commitment For The First Amendment, was formed by Hollywood’s A- listers. The membership for this group was around 300 people. Garfield was one of those people. They flew to D.C. and protested the HUAC hearings. It only backfired on them. It was found out that one of their members used to be in the Communist party, Stanley Hayden. As a result, all members came under suspicion. Then, it was found out, 3 of the Hollywood 10 used to be members of the Communist party. None of the members of the Committee For The First Amendment were communists. Nearly all were New Deal, Liberal Democrats.
Why did President Truman allow this travesty against the law and to the American people happen? According to a television bio-movie, Truman (1995), he didn’t think the America people would be so stupid to buy into HUAC’s brand of patriotism (This must have happened during an election year).
In reality, a 1946 poll, I snicker, claimed 78% of the American people believed Soviet agents infiltrated the United States Government. As a matter of fact, the United States Justice Department was investigating the Senior Editor of Time Magazine, Whittaker Chambers. Chambers had been a spy for the Soviets. He would testify to HUAC that an underground Communist Network had been working within our government since the 1930s. Then, he started naming names in order to cut a deal. One of those he named was Alger Hiss. He was an official in the State Department. Truman claimed Hiss was not a spy but a “Red Herring” to protect Chambers.
I am going out on a limb, and suggest, that Hollywood was perhaps a “Red Herring” too. It is like a magic show, distract them here while the trick is played there. This would take the focus off the United States Government. If it could have been proven true, it would have shaken the very foundation of this country, especially after suffering the effects of two World Wars. It is interesting to note that no spies were actually found in the government. As a matter of fact, the hearings tapered off after Senator McCarthy accused the United States Army of being communists. As a result, it is only in Hollywood that the accusations of “Being Red” still continued.
The Fateful Decision
When Garfield was asked to testify before the HUAC on April 23, 1951, he refused to give names or cut a deal like most of the “cooperating” Hollywood witnesses.
Here is Garfield’s final words to the HUAC:
“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.
Despite his patriotic efforts during the war, he was still Blacklisted for not lying. Congress expected him to lie and admit he was guilty of being a member of the communist party. Then, ask for mercy because he was duped by the “Reds.” He was supposed to denounce them and cut a deal. He was suppose to lie again on his peers, friends and even on his own family (Roberta, his wife, had an expired Communist party card). For readers, who are completely at lost about this time in American History, I highly recommend the movie, The Way We Were (1973). I know it is sappy; but, it helps to understand the mindset of people during this turbulent time; plus, the movie is wonderful to watch.
A Dream, Not Deferred And What Could Have Been
Despite the blacklisting, Garfield fulfilled his dream. “Golden Boy” was revived on Broadway between March 12, 1952 and April 6, 1952. He had completed 55 performances. Actor Jack Klugman played his brother, Frank Bonaparte in the play. In an interview, Klugman describe Garfield’s excitement of doing a future project with his old friend Elia Kazan (another blacklister). He was going to partly base the story on Garfield. Klugman later learned the name of that project was On the Waterfront (1954). The plot included a story of a boxer who made the decision to take a dive and ruin his life. I can only imagine how the iconic Brando scenes could have been done by Garfield. It would have been his “mature” moment as an actor. If only, he could have been permitted to do it. If only, he had lived long enough. It would have been awesome.
His Last Stressful Days
Ten days before Garfield died, his friend and colleague, Canada Lee (Blacklisted) had died of a heat attack at the age of 45. Weeks before Garfield died, he was informed, during one of his stage performances, that Federal charges were being bought against him in contempt of court (not naming names) and possibly perjury under oath. Variety magazine claims Garfield was going to recant his denial under oath to the HUAC in an upcoming interview because he wanted to cut a deal with the government.
If Garfield had went back to court, there would be no deals; and, if found guilty, he would spend time in a Federal prison. A couple of days before he died, he found out that CBS cancelled a show he had performed before a live television audience. It was a scene from Golden Boy. Kim Stanley (aka female Brando) performed it with him. Again the HUAC had intervened and prevented his work. In addition to all these stress factors that week, it was rumored that he separated from his wife, Roberta, of 21 years. This was not unusual in their long marriage. The night he died, Roberta was expecting him to come home.
So, on May 2o, 1952, he played a rigorous game of tennis. Then, he and a friend ate a heavy dinner. Later, he complained of not feeling well and just needed to rest. His friend, insisted that he take the bed; and, she would rest on the couch. Why didn’t he call his doctor? He was under a doctor’s care since he had a heart attack the year before. I can only assume that growing up in poverty creates some life long habits, like not going to the doctor when you feel ill. Besides, he just didn’t play tough guys in the movies, he was a tough guy.
The following morning she decided to let him sleep in. When she went to wake him, she bought him a glass of orange juice. When he did not respond, she called his doctor. He died on May 21, 1952, just within a few miles of where he was born on March 4, 1913 and a few hours before his friend, Clifford Odets, would cut a deal with HUAC.
John Garfield deserves a Posthumous Honorary Academy Award. His life and work had a positive, historical impact on Hollywood, the stage, and even on the American political system. By giving him this award, he would be given credit for his achievements and his family and friends could finally receive some justice to his memory. John Garfield is what America is all about: Courageous, creative, hard-working, tenacious, honorable, and defending those who can’t defend themselves. If the Academy honors Garfield’s memory in this way, perhaps, he might finally rest in peace because he will always be remembered.
If you would like to know more about Garfield and his work, check out another Garfield Blogathon that has great reviews of his movies. The link is below:
Link to the cancelled television show. The quality is pretty bad; but, you can still see some of the Garfield Charisma that audiences loved.
History on the HUAC
A very Brief Bio on Garfield on Facebook
Interview with Jack Klugman about John Garfield
Information about the Committee for the First Amendment
Meryl Streep’s Speech at the 2017 Golden Globe Awards: Garfield would have been very proud to call her his friend