John Huston’s gripping (and very sweaty) drama We Were Strangers tells of the fight of Cuban revolutionaries to take back their country, aided by an American (born in Cuba, forced to go into exile), played by John Garfield. Jennifer Jones plays a young Cuban woman who saw her brother gunned down on the steps of the university in Havana. She joins the revolutionaries, hell-bent on revenge. A giant and complicated plan is hatched in the hopes that the major members of the current government can all be brought to one place at one time, and then be gunned down. There are some in the revolutionary group who have moral qualms about this, others who have zero (“Don’t they murder innocent people all the time?”) John Garfield heads up the plan, which involves digging a long tunnel beneath an enormous cemetery, and much of the action takes place underground, in a small hot space, and the feeling is so realistic that I feel like I can actually smell the body odor of those guys, hacking away at the earth beneath the surface.
Watching We Were Strangers, it is incomprehensible to think that John Garfield would be dead a mere 3 years later. It does not seem possible. He is so in his prime, so strong. He was only 39 years old when he died. I wasn’t even alive when the man died, and his time as an actor and a star completely pre-dates me, but I discovered him very early through my voracious reading as a 12, 13-year-old girl about the Actors Studio and the Group Theatre, and Elia Kazan and Clifford Odets, and so he is very much wrapped up, for me, in my own development as a human being. Amazingly, I actually got to meet Elia Kazan once (AT the actual Actors Studio, AFTER a production of Awake and Sing, by Clifford Odets), and, not surprisingly, my entire life flashed before my eyes.
I had what I think of as a ferocious burst of curiosity that came over me when I was 12, 13 years old, following the accidental viewing of Dog Day Afternoon when I was babysitting. I was far too young to see that movie, and much of it went over my head, but all I could think was: “Who is that Al Pacino guy, and how did he learn to act like that?” I was in a fever about that movie for weeks. I was so rocked by it that I even considered writing a letter of encouragement and friendship to the actual Sonny, in prison. That was how real Pacino had made himself to me. I am a librarian’s daughter. I started doing research. Who was Pacino? Where did he come from? My research led me to an organization called The Actors Studio, which then led me to the Group Theatre, through some guy named Lee Strasberg, and people like Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner and Clifford Odets and Bobby Lewis all started taking shape in my imagination, with every book I read, and, of course, young John Garfield (born “Jules Garfinkle”, known as “Julie” to his friends). All of my curiosity had to be satisfied through the library, since this was before the Internet, naturally. Luckily, I had my first job at that time: a part-time page at the local library, and so during slow moments in my shifts, I would go to the “entertainment biography” section and scour the Index pages of every book on the shelf, looking for mention of the “Actors Studio”. This was how I ‘handled’ my fiery (I remember it almost as a burning sensation) revelation about acting, as personified in Al Pacino’s performance in Dog Day Afternoon. I didn’t immerse myself in the cinema of the 1970s. No. I went back. And found myself reading biographies of anyone who ever had anything to do with the Actors Studio. In this way, I discovered them all. The people who still inspire me today.
I knew OF “Julie Garfield” as a character in these biographies before I had ever seen one of his films. It was a strange backwards way to get obsessed, but I suppose it makes perfect sense, me being the daughter of a librarian.
So I have this strange personal feeling about Garfield, quite separate from his performances, because he was part of that crazy fiery growth spurt when I was 13 years old. One line on an Index page would lead me to another book that would open up another world. That’s how these things work.
Of course, as I went on in my teenage years, I then tried to see as many movies from all of these people I had read about as possible. It wasn’t the performances that made me take out the books. It was the books that made me check out the performances. It was one of those perfect instances of books saying, in no uncertain terms, “Here. You should know more about that.”
So by the time I saw The Postman Always Rings Twice, I felt almost proprietary towards John Garfield, because he was the “Julie” I had read about in all of these books, and I knew what happened to him and how important he was to so many. I was a kid, and I felt like I knew him. I knew he died at a really young age, and it would take me some time to piece that whole story together. His association with the Group Theatre is well-known to theatre buffs, and is documented in Wendy Smith’s wonderfully exhaustive history of that theatre company, Real Life Drama (published in 1994), which was amazing when it originally came out, because up until that moment you had to read the memoirs of all of the different characters in The Group to get a picture of what had happened (which I highly recommend anyway: The Fervent Years: The Group Theatre And The Thirties, by Harold Clurman is the main one to read of all the Group memoirs).
Group Theatre production of Odets’ Awake and Sing. John Garfield sitting over by the window, being comforted by Morris Carnovsky. Stella Adler can be seen over to the right laughing at the table.
Odets wrote much of his stuff with Julie Garfield in mind. Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy was written for him, but Garfield ended up playing Siggie, the cab driving son-in-law married to Anna Bonaparte, Joe’s sister. Siggie is a good funny supporting role, and his relationship with Anna, a wise-cracking sexually charged marriage, is one of the comic reliefs of that play. I played Anna in a wonderful production of Golden Boy in Chicago, and my friend David played Siggie. It was my own fantasy come to life of being involved in one of those original Group Theatre productions, with Julie Garfield charging across the stage in his unforgettable New York manner. Garfield did eventually play Joe Bonaparte on Broadway, only that was a decade after the original production.
I could talk about John Garfield forever: his continued devotion to the Group, even after he had gone to Hollywood and become a huge star (Franchot Tone was another company member who helped keep The Group afloat in lean years by sending money from Hollywood), his electric debut in Four Daughters, his fight with the HUAC, the blacklist, and his untimely death at the age of 39. 39. He had heart problems. He drank. And the stress and harassment he experienced in his final years was relentless, and meant to destroy him and his ability to work in his chosen field.
Whatever. I still miss the guy.
There is still much to discover about John Garfield. A giant star and sex symbol in his day, his fame has not lasted outside of cinephile circles and he is forgotten by the general public, in a way that Bogart/Gable/Tracy are not. That should be rectified. He should have a resurgence. I am in agreement with Kim Morgan, who recently wrote, “Where’s his damn box set?”
We Were Strangers is an ensemble piece, and Garfield fits in well with ensembles, despite his obvious charisma and star power. He is one of “the Group”. He started out as an actor by devoting himself to an ensemble, which is not always the case (acting often being a single-minded individualistic pursuit). But he gravitated towards the group. That was always his ideal, and you can see that ease with group dynamics here in We Were Strangers.
You know what you can also see? How hot the guy was. Holy smokes.