The John Garfield Story

REVIEW by Willard Manus

The actor John Garfield was a bigtime movie star in the 30s and 40s, as famous and popular as today's Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. His name began to fade from view in the 50s when he was blacklisted for political reasons. Garfield died soon after, at age 39, in the New York bed of a woman not his wife. He might have been completely forgotten by now if it were not for the classic-movie channels which occasionally screen some of his films, such as Dust Be My Destiny, The Sea Wolf and Body and Soul.

Now Limelight Editions has published a splendid biography of Garfield which, one hopes, will restore the luster to the actor's name and reputation. HE RAN ALL THE WAY--THE LIFE OF JOHN GARFIELD by Robert Nott is the fruit of ten years of research and writing by the author, a staff writer for The Santa Fe New Mexican.

What distinguishes HE RAN ALL THE WAY from the usual Hollywood celebrity bio is its honesty and objectivity. Nott clearly loves and respects Garfield, but he neither fawns over him nor over-praises his work as an actor. Garfield did appear in some dogs and he was a long way from being a perfect human being, and Nott isn't afraid to point these things out. He doesn't go overboard in this respect, though, and tear into his hero, the way some modern-day biographers do (e.g. Albert Goldman).

"From always admiring Garfield as an actor, I came to admire him as a human being for his simplicity and honesty," Nott writes. "But I like his flaws--and he had a lot of them--most of all. He lived and worked by instinct. He didn't always know where he was going, but he was pretty sure he was going to get there, and even if he didn't make it you sensed the journey was going to be exciting and unpredictable."

John Garfield was born Julius Garfinkle in New York's lower east side and grew up in the Belmont section of the Bronx, in a largely Italian neighborhood whose poverty and toughness Garfield liked to exaggerate in later years ("the streets were our playground and our jungle--and you behaved like an animal or you got your block knocked off").

The small, pugnacious Garfield was a better actor than a fighter, which made him gravitate toward the stage, beginning with the then-flourishing Yiddish theatre, eventually with the newly formed Group Theatre, which was spearheaded by Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford. Garfield was brought to the Group by Clifford Odets, another struggling young apprentice who later turned to playwriting and achieved fame with such social dramas as Waiting For Lefty and Awake and Sing. Ironically--and sadly--Odets ratted on his old friend twenty years later, naming him as a Communist sympathizer and costing him his studio contract.

Although Garfield credited the Group with teaching him how to act, many of his fellow-members treated him condescendingly. "They felt...that he was young, naive, childlike and very much in need of protection," one of them said. "The one word that instinctively and immediately derives from his action is charm." Garfield, who had quit high school to become an actor, was also known for the way he mangled language while trying to appear more learned than he actually was.

But then Garfield went to Hollywood and revealed unsuspected power and magnetism in his first roles. He was down to earth, honest and real, and became the first screen rebel character in cinematic history, "The first antihero of film. He was prototypical of all the young men of the Depression era; the guy trying hard to fight the fates and finding himself defeated at every turn...And he was sexy. There was something sensually languid about him, an inner force that suggested he could be a demon in bed," Nott says.

It was these qualities that made Garfield a star; women loved him, men wanted to emulate him. For the next twenty years Garfield ruled the Hollywood roost--but then the redbaiters and FBI did him in. "He came like a meteor and like a meteor he departed," said the rabbi officiating at his funeral. Nott's book catches that meteor in flight in captivating fashion.