John Garfield in We Were Strangers (1949)

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.

The Group Theatre on one of their yearly retreats

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.

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13 Responses to John Garfield in We Were Strangers (1949)

  1. Phil P says:

    I’m happy to read this appreciation of Garfield because I’ve been a fan of his since the days of my youth watching old movies on television. It saddens me too that his fame hasn’t lasted but I think he was unlucky in his roles. I mostly remember him rather than his movies. His most memorable film was Postman, but there he played a weak character. But then, how would Bogart be remembered if he died at 39?

  2. sheila says:

    I would have loved to see him onstage. When I was in the production of Golden Boy that I mentioned, the director played as a recording he had of the original Group Theatre production – I have no idea how he got it – he was friends with many of the original Group members. He wanted to show us how QUICKLY they all talked, the rat-a-tat-tat nature of the dialogue. Basically he wanted us to pick up our cues. Hahaha. But I loved hearing Garfield and Phoebe Brand (Morris Carnovsky’s wife – who played Anna, my part) go at it in the production. He snarled and smirked and wise-cracked and she teased him and shouted at him, without ONE PAUSE between the lines. Us contemporary actors sometimes have a bit of trouble with that – especially with Odets, which needs to play fast.

    I would have loved to see him live. Even in that scratchy recording, you could hear his power and his life.

    It is true, in many ways, that he was just getting started. His 40s and 50s would have gotten VERY interesting as he came into his dark strength and realism. It’s so sad to think of what-might-have-been.

    But still: he’s terrific in We Were Strangers!

  3. phil says:

    I’m the other phil, I guess. :)

    My favorite Garfield moment is in Gentleman’s Agreement.
    When he takes Dorothy McGuire aside and reads…I guess I would call it a ‘quiet, affectionate, riot act’… her, and you see this tear roll down her cheek.
    Ah. Gets me every time. What an actor.

  4. sheila says:

    Phil – I agree with you about his performance in Gentleman’s Agreement. I’m not a fan of that movie, and I think the film suffers every time he is not onscreen. He is the real deal – a Jew, an actual Jew – whose name is actually Jules Garfinkle – who changed it to John Garfield – an actual representation of what is done to Jews, what has happened to them … and yet he inhabits it with such ease, such realism, that you suddenly realize what the movie could have been if it hadn’t been so pleased with itself. I totally get its importance in the context of the time. It was a big big deal to even be discussing anti-Semitism as a serious issue in upper-middle-class circles. Very VERY daring.

    He makes the movie, most definitely. Well, he and young Dean Stockwell, of course!!

  5. scribbler50 says:

    Just thirty nine years old, that’s astounding! Having watched all his old movies when I was a kid, (and maybe it’s because I was a kid), he seems so much older than that age, especially when you look at these “thirty-somethings” acting today. They seem like boys. Garfield has always been one of my favorites… regular Joe with a darkness lurking below the surface. Great that you gave him a nod in this post, Sheila.

  6. Nick says:

    Garfield was one of Hollywood’s really good people, a guy you can say was caught in the wrong era—imagine what a big star he would’ve been if he’d come along in the 60’s or the 70’s (or even the 50’s), when audiences were ready for what he had to offer, and in an era when his politics was considered HIS business…In spite of his bad fortune, he made some films that will endure—Golden Boy, Postman, and We Were Strangers were excellent, as you mentioned, and I also loved Betrween Two Worlds and The Fallen Sparrow—and Garfield was uniformly fine in everything.

    Also a big fan of Franchot Tone—especially in Phantom Lady and The Man on the Eiffel Tower (he made a really good psycho—interesting, when you recall his relationship with the Black Dahlia)…And he is a descendant of Wolfe Tone’s!

  7. sheila says:

    Scribbler – I feel the same way about his age. He seems very grown up. Perhaps this is a result of today’s extended adolescence! If you watch his entrance in Four Daughters, his debut, you can immediately see he is something special. New York theatre audiences knew that already – but there, in the middle of that nice domestic drama, comes something REAL. He predicts the rise of Marlon Brando ten years before Streetcar. Because Four Daughters is of a certain time, his character, the outsider, must be “punished” – but you can obviously see that he is the most fascinating character up on that screen. The movie doesn’t really recover from his absence. You keep wanting him to come back, with that swagger and easy smirk, the way he smokes his cigarette … He seems REAL. Very New York-real, he’s not “middle America” AT ALL. He exudes his upbringing and background in a way that became the total style of acting in the 50s and 60s. He was way ahead of his time.

  8. Peter L. Winkler says:

    Garfield is one of my very favorite actors, and it is a great shame that he’s fallen into such obscurity. I once spoke to the late Joe Pevney, who was a Group Theater meber, and played Shorty in Body and Soul. Pevney said Garfield was a sweet guy, if not the brightest. That innate sweetness and gentility comes across in Garfield’s performances. I love too his inimitable mannerisms and way of speaking, which seems to belong to a particular era and social environment that he grew up in, which I find very endearing.

    Garfield was Irene Selznick’s first choice for Streetcar. Evidently, he wanted a run of the play contract, given his star status, and Kazan actually gravitated to Brando. I dearly would love it if Garfield had done the screen version of The Big Knife, which he played on stage, though I happen to love the film that was made of it.

  9. scribbler50 says:

    You nailed it, Sheila, “extended adolescence” is where we are today. And that ain’t John Garfield. He was definitely a man of his time or, as you put it, a precursor to the time immediately to follow… the Brando era. Except for the rarest of exceptions, I can’t imagine him in anything going on today. (“Hangover II” starring John Garfield?)

  10. sheila says:

    Peter – I love to hear the personal anecdotes from Mr. Pevney, thank you so much for that. Yes, he did seem not just well-liked, but very much loved, by his friends and colleagues. A man who really did his best to juggle fame and also his loyalty to that theatre group that had given him his start. He didn’t just use it as a launching-pad for something else – You get the feeling that if he could have swung it financially he would have been back in New York doing plays.

    And I agree: his mannerisms were completely genuine, coming from his own experience – something you can clearly see in Four Daughters, his debut – where he strolls into that genteel (and gentile, come to think of it) house, bringing with him the life of the outside world and the streets of New York. And it’s not a put-on, it’s not a big swaggering act. It is uniquely his. That was his gift. I mean, the part was appropriate for him, but he also was able to just go for it.

    I love The Big Knife so much. It is so custom-made for Garfield. I wrote a piece about that script a while back. A bit rambling, as some of my pieces are, but I feel very passionately about that play. It’s certainly one of the most personal things Odets ever wrote.

  11. sheila says:

    Scribbler – I know, right? What could he play now? A smoldering action hero? Bruce Willis, come to think of it, has a bit of the John Garfield-vibe, and has a similar throwback appeal (in my opinion). He’s clearly a MAN, and always was. He doesn’t play grown-up boys. I just saw Red, and loved it – it really played to Willis’ strengths. He got to be thoughtful, but not too deep – and funny and gentle, but then also a stand-up guy when the chips were down. It was really fun.

  12. bobf says:

    If you’re a fan of John Garfield, you might be interested in checking out music video of a biographical folk song from the 1980s, “Ballad of John Garfield,” that was recently posted at following youtube link:

  13. Maria Lopez says:

    I remember watching this film when I was still young with my grandmother, I am not a fan of movies specially old sappy movies, but this film really makes me apreciate old good films. John Garfield is such an amazing actor, there is something beautiful on his expressive eyes,he really shone in this film. Thank you for sharing, this really remind me of old days and fond memories.

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