Saturday, May 21, 2022

This Day in Film History (John Garfield Dies, KO’d by Blacklist)

May 21, 1952—No longer able to land a film role in Hollywood despite box-office success for the prior 13 years, back in the New York theater scene close to his heart, John Garfield died at age 39 of a heart attack.

Assigning causes of death can be difficult, and in Garfield’s case it was certainly problematic: 

*Did he die as a result of the rheumatic fever he had contracted almost 20 years before, maybe worsened by his smoking habit? 

*Had the middle-aged star absorbed more punishment than he could stand in an attempt to portray a young boxer in a revival of the Clifford Odets drama Golden Boy

*Had his coronary incident occurred during a romantic interlude with the female friend he was visiting at the time of his death, as some salacious gossips had it?

But there is another factor that underlies all of these theories: the stress of lingering questions about alleged Communist associations that, after nine years, had resulted in his blacklisting from Hollywood.

In perhaps his signature movie role, as an ambitious boxer struggling to win a title and maintain his integrity in Body and Soul, Garfield received his second Oscar nomination. When he was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1951, he found himself in the uncomfortable position of life imitating art.

Like his character Charlie Davis, Garfield was reluctant to give up the position in his profession he had worked so intensely to achieve, including creature comforts. Like Davis, he did his share of bobbing and weaving when faced with his moral dilemma, including releasing a ghostwritten article for Look Magazine, “I Was a Sucker for a Left Hook,” claiming he had been duped by Communist ideology, in a futile try at compromising with investigators.

But in the end, again like Davis, he found one demand too many to stomach, in this case violating the moral code of the Lower East Side and the Bronx of his childhood: Don’t be a snitch. His bottom line was that he refused to name names.

It may be so hard to assess all that Garfield lost by making his stand because we have lost a sense of his place in movie history. He opened doors to others (Ben Gazzara cited him, in an interview with Lillian and Helen Ross in The Player: A Profile of an Art, "the first actor I had seen in the movies who felt close enough to my own life to be reachable"), but at the same time his reputation was so Himalayan that it could intimidate those who hoped to follow. (For the same book, Kim Hunter recalled how, in rehearsals for A Streetcar Named Desire, Marlon  Brando kept saying, "They should have got John  Garfield for Stanley, not me; Garfield was right for the part, not me.")

*He was the first film “Method Actor”. Before Brando, Clift and James Dean became famous for using this naturalistic style of portraying characters, Garfield got there first.  He learned it originally as a member of the ensemble Group Theatre in New York, then brought the style to Hollywood. As author Isaac Butler described it in an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Garfield made a crucial adaptation for his first film, Four Daughters in 1938: “He couldn't just do a stage performance on camera. If you've ever seen someone just give a stage-size performance on camera, it's really too much because the camera picks up so much that an audience at the theater will not see. It can really see you think or people talk about it reading your mind. ... So he really had to learn how to do much less and much less and much less, and to strip away and to learn how to perform with a new kind of ease and spontaneity that the camera would kind of pick up and enjoy.”

*He was "the first Jewish film sex symbol," according to Gil Troy's 2018 "Daily Beast" article. The actor’s given name was Jacob Julius Garfinkle, but his friends nicknamed him “Julie.” He was more than handsome; his intensity gave a palpable erotic surge to his scenes with Lana Turner, for instance, in The Postman Always Rings Twice.

*He was crucial in the development of film noir. Other actors—Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum come to mind—are more indelibly associated with the genre. But Garfield not only brought a rebellious persona, but also what TCM “Noir Alley” host Eddie Muller called, in Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, “a fiery desire to Make a Difference,” leading to “a caravan of writers, directors, and actors from the New York stage.”

*He pioneered the movement of movie stars into independent production. So chafing at the largely “B” movies to which he was relegated at Warner Brothers that he was suspended 11 times during his nine years at the studio, Garfield started his own production company, Enterprise Studios. A decade later, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas would follow suit with their own companies.

Ironically, the creative freedom that Garfield won through this daring move also helped lead to his blacklisting, according to his daughter Julie in this YouTube clip.  Hollywood studios resented the challenge to their ironclad control that his new venture represented. When HUAC approached them, looking for a liberal Jewish star that they could make an example of, they had three men in mind: Edward G. Robinson, Danny Kaye, and Garfield. Now on his own, Garfield had the least protection.

The actor had first appeared on a list of names of Hollywood actors with suspicious associations in the early 1940s, but within a few years—especially through the attention of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover—he came under heightened scrutiny. Garfield was not and had never been a Communist, but he knew people who were: his associates at the Group Theatre and his wife Roberta Seidman.

Additionally, Garfield was vulnerable because of his habit of signing petitions and joining organizations without questioning who might be behind them. A self-described "Democratic liberal," he did it all "without giving it a second thought, almost as if he were autographing for a friend," observed Robert Nott, author of a 2003 biography of the actor, He Ran All the Way.

Eventually Garfield’s phone would be tapped and he would be subjected to surveillance—even when he went to Harlem to visit his dying friend, blacklisted actor Canada Lee. He told HUAC that he would gladly testify about himself but not his wife or his friends. Though he thought this deal had gotten him through his trouble, he learned that HUAC investigators were poring over his testimony for possible perjury charges.

At this point, he was brought into an FBI office and told that the agency already had paperwork showing his wife’s membership in the party, so all he had to do was confirm it and he would be cleared. Instead, he told them what they could do in unprintable terms and walked out.

Altogether, Garfield went 18 months without work. Under the strain of the investigation, he drank more heavily and separated from his wife.

On the day of Garfield’s death, his friend, playwright Clifford Odets, confirmed, in his own HUAC testimony, what the committee knew already: that the actor had never been a Communist.

Garfield's penultimate screen appearance was in The Breaking Point, a Warner Brothers adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not. Like a Hemingway hero, Garfield was, in the end, a proud loser, someone willing to experience grievous sacrifice--even the loss of his life--rather than break with the code by which he lived. 

You can sense something of this bloodied yet unbowed attitude in this still from Body and Soul. He didn't have a chance to make enough such classics (his early death precluded him from the chance to make On the Waterfront and The Man With the Golden Arm), but he put all of himself into his work, and film watchers discovering his less-famous films for the first time are in for a treat.

No comments: