Movie Stars: Garfield, John–Angry Rebel? (Body and Soul, Postman Always Rings Twice)

John Garfield, the brilliant actor and graduate of the famous Group Theater, became a star with his very first screen performance, “Four Daughters,” in 1938.

From his very first screen role, Garfield became an iconic actor, a symbol of success for millions of working-class immigrants, specifically Jewish, who wanted their share of the American Dream.

In a career spanning 13 years and containing no less than 31 pictures, Garfield was particularly adept at playing angry, brooding, rebellious, discontented working-class characters. As a screen symbol, he paved the way for such major stars as James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Marlon Brando.

He grew up in poverty in Depression-era New York City and in the early 1930s became a member of the Group Theater. In 1937, he moved to Hollywood, eventually becoming one of Warner’s major stars.

Called to testify before the U.S. Congressional House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), he denied Communist affiliation and refused to “name names,” which resulted in blacklisting and the end of his lucrative film career. Some claim that the stress of this incident led to his premature death in 1952, at the young age of 39, from a heart attack.

Garfield was born Jacob Garfinkle in a small, shabby apartment in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, to David and Hannah Garfinkle, Russian Jewish immigrants. He grew up amidst the heart of the Yiddish Theater District, which was then flourishing. Later on, a middle name—Julius—was added–which became his nick name. His father, a clothes presser and part-time cantor, struggled to make a living. When Garfield was five, his brother Max was born. Their mother died two years later, and the boys were sent to live with poor relatives.

It was on the streets that he learned “all the meanness, all the toughness it’s possible for kids to acquire. If I hadn’t become an actor, I might have become Public Enemy Number One.” His father remarried and moved to the Bronx where Garfield joined a gang. He recalled: “Every street had its own gang. That’s the way it was in poor sections, the old safety in numbers.”

From young age, he showed ability to mimic famous performers. He also began to hang out at a boxing gym on Jerome Avenue. After being expelled from school, his parents sent him to P.S. 45, a place for difficult children. It was under the guidance of the school’s principal—the educator Angelo Patri—that he was introduced to acting. Garfield’s tendency to stammer led to speech therapy with Margaret O’Ryan, who also gave acting exercises. O’Ryan thought he had natural talent and cast him in school plays.

With Patri and O’Ryan’s encouragement he began to take acting lessons at a drama school that was part of The Heckscher Foundation. One of the productions was attended by the Yiddish actor Jacob Ben-Ami who recommended him to the American Laboratory Theater. Funded by the Theatre Guild, “the Lab” contracted Richard Boleslavski to stage its experimental productions and Russian actress and expatriate Maria Ouspenskaya to teach acting. Both were former members of the internationally renowned Moscow Art Theater, and as such, the first proponents of Stanislavsky’s System in the U.S.

Garfield took morning classes and began volunteering time at the Lab after hours, auditing rehearsals, building and painting scenery. He would later view this time as his apprenticeship in the theater. Among the members of the Lab were Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, Franchot Tone, Cheryl Crawford and Harold Clurman, all of whom would influence Garfield’s later career.

After a stint with Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theater and a short period of vagrancy involving hitchhiking, freight hopping, picking fruit, and logging in the Pacific Northwest. Preston Sturges conceived the film Sullivan’s Travels after hearing Garfield tell of his hobo adventures. Garfield made his Broadway debut in 1932, in the play Lost Boy, which ran for only two weeks but gave him a break into the theater.

Garfield received feature billing in his next role, Henry the office boy, in Elmer Rice’s “Counselor-at-Law,” starring Paul Muni. He traveled with the show across the country. On the road, Garfield was introduced to a Wisconsin professor, Meikeljohn, who encouraged him to increase his education. Garfield was always aware of how little he had read, how little he knew about politics.

The production closed when Muni was contractually forced to return to Hollywood to make a film for Warner. The studio also sought to arrange a screen test for Garfield, but he turned them down. Garfield’s former colleagues Crawford, Clurman, and Strasburg began a new, radical theater collective, “the Group,” and Garfield lobbied hard to get in. After months of rejection, he spent a lot of time on the steps of the Broadhurst Theater, where the Group had its offices. Founding member Cheryl Crawford noticed him, and Garfield requested apprenticeship. By 1935, the Group was the avant-garde center of the New York (and American) theater.

Clifford Odets had been a friend of Garfield from the early days in the Bronx. After Odets’ one-act play Waiting for Lefty became a hit, the Group mounted a production of his full length drama Awake and Sing. At the playwright’s insistence, Garfield was cast as Ralph, the sensitive young son who pled for “a chance to get to first base.” The play opened in February 1935 and Garfield was singled out by the N.Y. Times critic, Brooks Atkinson, for having a “splendid sense of character development.”

Garfield was granted full membership into the company, which had a lasting influence on the 24 year old actor. He got from the members, who also included Franchot Tone, Morris Carnovsky, and Elia Kazan, social and political awareness, as well as his theatrical conscience–dedication, idealism, eagerness, and intensity–all of which would inform his distinctive screen persona.

Odets wrote a play just for Garfield, Golden Boy. However, when the more veteran actor, Luther Adler was cast in the lead instead, the disillusioned Garfield began to reconsider the overtures from Hollywood.

Garfield had been approached by both Paramount and Warner, but talks had stalled over a clause he wanted inserted in his contract that would allow him time off for stage work. Now Warner acceded to his demand and Garfield signed a standard feature-player agreement: Seven years with options.

Studio head Jack Warner changed his name to John Garfield. Previously, he was billed as Jules Garfield, a change that he embraced because it was short, poignant, and recalled a president with that name.

After false starts, he was cast in a supporting, yet crucial role as a tragic young composer in a Michael Curtiz’s “Four Daughters.” When the picture opened, he received rave reviews and an Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category.

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