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John Garfield, Genius

Though I frequently discuss actors I love/am in love with, I've never delved into that simmering, gorgeous genius of masculine menace, charm and vulnerability -- John Garfield. He's one of my favorite actors (among a top three that alternate, but Garfield always remains), and an actor who almost literally knocked me for a loop when I first saw him on screen (in The Postman Always Rings Twice). All that sensitive masculinity, intelligence and intense, noir sex appeal and I was a goner. Forget Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson's furious, flour-dusted fornication on the kitchen counter in the steamy re-make (which I do enjoy and find erotic), John and Lana need only to simply look at each other and...that's it. You know what they're up to later -- and the wondering is part of the picture’s tremendous turn-on (not to mention Lana's lipstick).

But Mr. Garfield...perhaps like poor Priscilla Lane checking out all your tough guy artistry, smoking that ciggie while playing the piano in your unforgettable 1938 film debut (Four Daughters) you're just too much for me.  Like Joan Crawford’s wide-eyed attraction and anger during your virtuoso "Flight of the Bumblebee" interlude in Humoresque, I just can’t function properly when thinking about you.  I'm all moony and swoony and tongue tied and, aw nuts...let’s just hitch-hike away from that depressing roadside diner. I don’t care if my white suit gets dirty. And unlike Ms. Turner, I'll knock him in the head with a bottle if you want...whatever it takes. See, I can’t think straight when regarding Garfield’s formidable big screen sway.

But since today is his birthday, I had to discuss for recognition alone. Why isn't he supremely famous? A household name? Why isn't he better recognized (he wasn't even listed in the featured Birthday section of IMDB, though thank goodness TCM honored him). For reasons I cannot decipher, this brilliant, brooding actor, though well respected by those who know better, isn't considered the legend a la Bogart, Clift, Brando or Dean. Why isn’t he better appreciated? This massive talent with genuine bad-boy street cred (he was born Julius Garfinkle and raised tough on the streets of Brooklyn and the Bronx) was a huge star in his day, so much so that his 1952 funeral was attended by more folks than Rudolph Valentino's ceremony.  So why have too many forgetten him? Where's his damn box set?

If you've never seen a John Garfield performance, you have been (in a supreme understatement) missing out. If you've only watched one or two, you're sorely behind. If you need to catch up, check (among many other pictures) his intense, oftentimes roughly romantic and edgy performances in movies such as Gentlemen's Agreement, They Made Me a Criminal, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Body and Soul, Force of Evil, The Breaking Point (the superior version of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not), Nobody Lives Forever, Humoresque, Flowing Gold, Between Two Worlds, We Were Strangers and (my favorite) He Ran All the Way -- his last film and a quite fitting one considering how he left this world. 

And God...what an exit Mr. Garfield. A serious actor and movie star (he trained in the famed Group Theater and worked with Clifford Odets), he was also victim to one of cinema's darkest, most shameful moments when the left-wing, progressive actor (and patriotic actor, he helped created The Hollywood Canteen for heaven's sake) testified at the scabrous House Un-American Activities Committee, who suspected him and certain colleagues, Communist. Unlike many other actors, writers and directors (including one of his former directors, Elia Kazan), Garfield refused to name names. As both a once young street tough and a man of principle, Garfield would not rat. Not surprisingly, work was then harder to come by and at the young age of 39, Garfield died of coronary thrombosis. Many speculate an already present heart condition was worsened by the stress caused by the House's inquisition. I think this assumption is correct. His mislabeling and death is so tragic that it angers me to this day.

Another reason I find it tough to write about Garfield. But I’ll never stop watching his movies -- in many cases multiple times. Right now, in fact. He Ran all the Way awaits. Happy Birthday to this hot genius piece of work. And here's to dropping that lipstick. Lana was lucky.

Comments

Melissa

I've only seen The Postman Only Rings Twice, but he was great in that (though Hume Cronyn stole the movie from the leads in the end). That's a shame about his early death and being so underrated.

Birthday Events

John Garfield is fantastic! It's great to seem him remembered like this...

Happy Birthday

A great person that always with us.

Rocky

Hi...I just came across your site by chance. I was looking up sites on John and I think yours is really great. I am in love with John and I also watch one of his movies at least once a week. I have his signature tattooed on my wrist with a cigarette underneith it...it look really cool. I won of his coats from E-Bay and have it hanging in my bedroom. I live in NYC and whenever I am in Grammacy Park, I always stop by the house where he died and say a pray with a lump in my throat. I also went to visit his grave in Upstate NY, and left him a pack of Camels. I am planning on driving there in a few weeks with some friends. I also have many framed pictures of him on my living room coach, and I try to collect everything I can find on him. Wish I could own the hat he wore in Tortilla Flat,he looked so cute in it. Well thanks for owing such a great site, and I will visit it weekly.
Thank You,
Rocky

Jonathan Hertzberg

Found your post belatedly. Your thoughts mirror mine on the current state of John Garfield ignorance. I'm forever having to tell so-called film buffs who John Garfield was. I programmed a John Garfield/Robert Ryan retrospective a fews years ago, which, unfortunately, brought in very few new converts. However, on the bright side, THE BREAKING POINT and NOBODY LIVES FOREVER have been very well-received at special screenings arranged by the Film Noir Foundation and UCLA in recent years.

His death still saddens and angers me and whenever there is a tribute such as TCM's month-long ode in '03, I feel a lot better. I've always felt that Garfield falling off the radar had a lot to do with the after effects of the Blacklist. Since I wasn't alive in the 50s and 60s, I can't say for sure, but I get the feeling his films did not get the same television exposure that the Bogarts and Cagneys did. The Blacklist did carry over until the early 60s, most famously "broken" by Kirk Douglas for SPARTACUS. Did the Blacklist extend to dead actors and the frequency that their films appeared on television? I'm not sure, but I'm certain that people like Pat McGilligan and Paul Buhle might have some ideas about this.

By the time of home video, most of Garfield's solo work remained in the vaults while his work with other big stars (Cary Grant, Lana Turner, Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, etc.) was released. We did get FORCE OF EVIL, FOUR DAUGHTERS, and BODY AND SOUL, of course, but almost nothing else that were "Garfield pictures." This dearth of availability most certainly hampered the growth of Garfield mystique amongst younger cinephiles.

Warner Home Video has been promising a box set for this year (good timing since it's Garfield own 95th Anniversary). Eddie Muller has referred to the coming box set, but with few details. I'm confident that THE BREAKING POINT (Garfield's best in my opinion) will be part of it (with a Muller commentary?) and I hope that PRIDE OF THE MARINES (right behind THE BREAKING POINT) is part of it as well. There has been no official announcement yet, however.

If Garfield had had a few more years of making films out of the clutches of Warner Bros., I think he would have had his own AFRICAN QUEEN to hang his hat on. As daughter Julie Garfield said on TCM, "Daddy never had a CASABLANCA," a film that would live on in the hearts and minds of cinemagoers generation after generation.

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