Happy Birthday, John Garfield


Now THAT is a movie star.

One of my favorite actors, as well as an early inspiration to me because of his devotion to The Group Theatre and its ideals. “Julie” Garfield lived in my imagination long before I had seen any of his films.

A couple of things to read:

The Jewish Brando, by J. Hoberman.

Must-read: Kim Morgan’s piece on John Garfield, with clips of Kim interviewing John Garfield’s daughter.

There are so many good roles in his short career (on stage and film): the brawny hot sex-on-a-stick of Postman Always Rings Twice, he’s sweaty and impassioned in We Were Strangers, the beauty and power-play of Humoresque with Joan Crawford (and watch his violin playing in it: he trained for months. Also, his old Group Theatre colleague Ruth Nelson has a killer cameo playing Garfield’s mother). I love his electric debut in Four Daughters. From the first second he walks into that house, you ache to be close to him, you want more of him. He has an authenticity that is undeniable. He is a harbinger of what is to come, he predicts Brando and all the rest, 10 years before. I dislike Gentleman’s Agreement, except for Dean Stockwell and John Garfield. John Garfield, born Jacob Julius Garfinkle, changed his name to sound less Jewish, and never played an openly Jewish character (although it is certainly implied in Four Daughters) until Gentleman’s Agreement, Hollywood’s proud-of-itself expose of anti-Semitism. Gregory Peck is a self-righteous drip in the film, but watch Garfield. He only has a couple of scenes. Once again, just like in his debut, he strolls onto that sound stage, chows down a meal at the kitchen table, bantering, laughing, drinking coffee, and makes everyone else look like self-serious actor-nerds. His presence is so palpable, so real that he brings the casual reality of the modern American Jew to the screen in a way that Peck’s torturous journey never could. Garfield is just so present.

He always made things more real, just by showing up.

And I’m with Kim.

The man was a hero.

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15 Responses to Happy Birthday, John Garfield

  1. My parents saw John G. shooting a movie in Manhattan. This must have been in the late 40s, I’m guessing, right after the war. They were starstruck. I remember them talking about it from time to time. The shoot involved a lot of running. I have no idea which movie it was.

    Somebody (qtd. I think by P. Kael) nailed the lesson of Gentlemen’s Agreement as “Never cross a Jew, because he might turn out to be a gentile.”

    • sheila says:

      Jincy – wow, your parents are lucky! So cool!

      I would be totally starstruck too.

      • Just figured out–it was Body and Soul. Had to be.

        • sheila says:

          I was curious about the quote you mentioned, and Googled it. I found it attributed to Arthur Laurents:

          “the movie that says you better be nice to a Jew because he might turn out to be a gentile.”

          Now that’s pretty damn funny if you think about it!

          • Funny and really damning. Sorry I didn’t get the quote right, but the sentiment is terrific. Sums up everything that was wrong with the movie (and book). Giant diff between “treat everybody as you would want to be treated” and “treat everybody as though they were like you, because you never know…”

          • sheila says:

            Yeah, a terrific quote! Says it all.

            Thank God John Garfield, a real Jew, was in the damn thing at all. Otherwise, there would be even more of a WTF factor.

            But Dean Stockwell is adorable. Poor thing has to sob in the bathroom, “That kid called me a kike!”

  2. sheila says:

    I love Body and Soul!

  3. Lisa in Fort Worth says:

    Humoresque! Love that movie just watched it again not too long ago. Also saw him in Out of the Fog with Ida Lupino. Hadn’t seen that one before.

    • sheila says:

      Yeah, and Joan Crawford is great in Humoresque too. As someone who needs glasses, she completely nails the whole near-sighted behavior thing. I love their dynamic!

  4. stevie says:

    Love him! Although he did train for months to play the violin for Humoresque, for the “real” closeups, that’s one violinist’s left hand doing the fingering, another violinist’s hand doing the bow work, all filmed close up. The filming itself was grueling, extremely uncomfortable for all concerned. It’s a classic bit of Hollywood magic. xxx Stevie

    • sheila says:

      Stevie – yes, I should been clearer – his fake “violin playing” – so real-looking, right? A perfect cinematic sleight of hand!

      // The filming itself was grueling, extremely uncomfortable for all concerned. //

      I mean, I can’t even imagine. Such a wonderful acting challenge. I love that movie so much – and Crawford and Garfield are dynamite together!!


      • stevie says:

        They are the personification of chemistry. Crawford had a strength, a great sense of equality with masculine men like Garfield and Gable. Plus: never have her shoulders been so broad as in her sables!

        • sheila says:

          Stevie – so agree with your observation about how great it was to pair Crawford with a real masculine type. In that way, the men get to be soft, vulnerable – I don’t know – it’s all very interesting and hot gender-wise.

          I don’t think I own Humoresque – I have to check – talking about it makes me want to see it immediately!

  5. Maureen says:

    I love that picture! I am from the south side of Chicago-but my sister’s boyfriend, who was Polish, looks so much like him. Those facial features-the smaller stature-they are so similar.

    I watched Humoresque a few weeks ago, he totally holds his own with Joan Crawford. What a talent, and it breaks my heart he died so young.

    • sheila says:

      His end is just infuriating. Hounded to death, really.

      A real sex symbol, too. He wore it easily and comfortably – even strutting it – like in Four Daughters. He’s really a secondary character in Four Daughters, but the film never really “recovers” from his presence. You keep waiting for him to come back.

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