His debut in Four Daughters is one of those moments in American cinema – a sea-change – a new kind of acting coming to the forefront … the full fruition of it being Marlon Brando in Streetcar in 1951 – but Four Daughters was in 1938. He is shockingly modern. He would fit in to any movie today, about the crumply rugged unshaven anti-hero. John Garfield strolls into that movie, unselfconscious, without any of that old-school gesture-y vaudeville style (not to knock it – it’s just different) – and he is an emissary from the future. He is what will come. He’s not even the lead, and the movie doesn’t quite recover from his absence. (My review of this terribly under-rated and very difficult to find film here.)
UPDATE: Found the clip of his entrance to Four Daughters on Youtube. Exciting! Added the clip below. Tell me this guy isn’t a movie star. He’s an unknown when he enters, an unknown actor, but he sure as hell doesn’t act like one. He’s a star.
If you ever see that it’s on anywhere, I highly recommend it, if for Garfield’s debut alone. I go into his career in that link as well, something I’m very familiar with, due to my long-standing passion about the Group Theatre (an ensemble company in the 30s, which produced, oh, you know, lightweights like Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets, Stella Adler, Morris Carnovsky, Franchot Tone, to name a few).
Garfield, hounded by the HUAC, was harassed into an early grave, something that I mourn, even though – you know – it has nothing to do with me – because I don’t believe he had “the” role yet. The one we all would remember, the thing that would make him immortal. He had been good in things – he’s usually good – he was the only good thing in Gentleman’s Agreement (well, besides Dean Stockwell, of course, who strolls away with every scene … acting poor stiff Gregory Peck off the screen), he was smoldering and terrific in Postman Always Rings Twice. The role would come. I totally believe it would have come.
Let’s not forget that he was first choice to play Stanley Kowalski on Broadway (he turned the part down). Clifford Odets wrote many roles just for “Julie”, and it’s just one of those terribly sad what-ifs in Hollywood.
He was so good. A palpably masculine and strong leading man, unselfconsciously sexy – no preening – and – very important, I think – a certain ethnic stamp on him which gives him a different kind of authenticity in the world of golden boy leading men in which he operated. He seems like New York. You can tell he is local. So many stars seem to come from nowhere. They have indeterminate accents – they have worked hard to get rid of their local ones, Southern, New York, Midwest, whatever – to flatten it out into that mid-Atlantic cadence favored by news anchors everywhere. John Garfield could never be from anywhere other than New York. He still has the stink of the street on him. You can feel the rattle of the subway, the taste of the corned beef sandwich, the glitz, the gleam, the filth … and to have all of that in 1938 is no small thing. It came naturally to him.
Four Daughters is most interesting to watch because it is the new acting style up against the old. Two totally different worlds. Now I am not a Method acting snot. I couldn’t care less about how you get there, and there is much in the old-school style that is wonderful and precious. There is nothing like a scene played immaculately and perfectly by Ronald Coleman. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, basically. He’s exquisite. But John Garfield has a mess about him. He smokes, and even his cigarettes look hand-rolled. He lets long pauses happen between lines, he smirks and sneers … and everyone is off-balance just by being in his presence. That “style” of acting is so in vogue now that it is hard to remember what a revolution it really was, and in Four Daughters you can see the whole thing – side by side with the old-school. The daughters are all wonderful, the other characters … nobody’s a stinker, it’s not like Garfield is the only “good” thing in it.
But he is definitely something new, make no mistake.
Some photos below.
I love him, and I am basically bummed at what won’t be and what will never be. He was terrific.