Garfield’s short, but shining, career earns actor high regard
A film industry faction fosters the folklore that John Garfield was hounded into an early grave, at age 39, by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
He had been subpoenaed to testify about Communist friends, and didn’t — his call — thereby inadvertently engendering a tale of martyrdom.
The fact is that he died of coronary thrombosis in Manhattan’s Warwick Hotel in the company of a girlfriend. He had recently completed a revival of the strenuous “Golden Boy,” playing a boxer, and was known to binge on the wrong foods.
Another fact is that half a century after his death, he is held in higher regard than many of the actors who were bigger names in the 1940s, and it’s easy to see why.
Garfield (1913-52) is profiled on Turner Classic Movies’ “The John Garfield Story.” Twenty-five of his movies will be shown on TCM on Mondays in February.
“He was a tough hombre,” recalls Hume Cronyn, one of several celebrities, including Joanne Woodward and Danny Glover, who comment on camera.
Garfield was born Jacob (later Julius) Garfinkle in New York City to Russian Jews and grew up a brawler who was sent to reform school.
He was also a charmer, rugged and sufficiently good looking to catch the attention of the Group Theatre, which accepted him in 1937, and millions since.
What set him apart from thousands of other hopefuls and most of his successful contemporaries was a combination of pugnacious intensity and renegade indifference.
Clifford Odets wrote the Broadway play “Golden Boy” for him, but the producing Group Theatre gave the lead to the more experienced Luther Adler and handed Garfield a secondary part.
Warners signed Garfield to a contract and gave him sixth billing in “Four Daughters,” but he got all the notices, including a first Oscar nomination, and was on his way.
Warners refused to lend him to Columbia for the film of “Golden Boy,” which made a star of William Holden, but gave Garfield other goodies including “Castle on the Hudson” (1940) and “The Sea Wolf” (1940).
He was riding so high with “Tortilla Flat” (1942), “The Fallen Sparrow” (1943) and especially “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946) that he turned down an offer to star in the original 1947 Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” (Marlon Brando did it and never looked back.)
Besides, within one three-day period in 1947, two of Garfield’s biggest hits premiered — “Body and Soul,” in which he played a boxer and earned a second Oscar nomination, and “Gentlemen’s Agreement” (1947), a blockbuster that won the Oscar as Best Picture.
Good films followed, but his box office already was suffering by the time HUAC came calling.
The last work he did was in a four-week New York revival of “Golden Boy,” with several of the 1937 cast members.
“Chronically unfaithful,” the film explains, to wife Roberta Seidman, who had been his high school sweetheart, he began making a series of good but progressively less popular movies.
The documentary, narrated by daughter Julie Garfield, sentimentalizes the actor for everything from his patriotism to his durability. But it offers ample evidence of the spark that ran through all of his performances.
Ironically, his disinclination toward sentimentality is a large part of what makes the actor popular with classic movie lovers today.
“The John Garfield Story” airs at 8 and 11 p.m. Tonight, TCM