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John Garfield - Urban Hero logo

Born Jacob Julius Garfinkle on March 4, 1913 in New York City, this short, dark-haired, broodingly handsome actor often played rebellious, tough urban characters-which didn't require much of a stretch. Born on New York City's Lower East Side to immigrant Jews, Garfield grew up in the streets, frequently clashing with both the police and neighborhood gangs. Verbally as well as physically combative, he won a debating contest sponsored by The New York Times and used the scholarship funds to enroll in the (Maria) Ouspenskaya Drama School. During the Depression years, he took a few odd jobs and spent long periods riding the rails as a hobo. (Film buffs still debate whether that's him, as a sailor with one quick closeup, in the "Shanghai Lil" number of 1933's Footlight Parade). He came back to New York and joined the politically progressive Group Theatre, making a name for himself as a charismatic performer and eventually winding up on Broadway.

Hollywood beckoned in 1938. Warner Bros. saw in Garfield the same urbanspawned edginess, pugnaciousness, and cynicism that James Cagney had brought to the studio years earlier. Although his screen characters were sometimes too surly to be wholly sympathetic, Garfield established a following after appearing in Four Daughters (1938, with a great showcase role as a fatalistic musician, for which he snagged an Academy Award nomination), They Made Me a Criminal, Daughters Courageous, Blackwell's Island, Dust Be My Destiny, Four Wives, Juarez (all 1939), and Castle on the Hudson (1940). Several of these were remakes of earlier Warners successes, and capitalized on Garfield's flinty personality and big-city background. But the studio eventually broadened his range of roles, just as it had done for Cagney. Flowing Gold (1940), The Sea Wolf, Out of the Fog (both 1941), Dangerously They Live, Tortilla Flat (both 1942, on loan to MGM for the latter), Air Force, Thank Your Lucky Stars (both 1943), Destination Tokyo, Between Two Worlds (both 1944), and Pride of the Marines (1945) took Garfield out of the urban milieu, although he was always at his best playing disaffected loners. (In 1944's Hollywood Canteen he played himself, as the cofounder-with Bette Davis-of this haven for transient servicemen in L.A.).

Garfield was ideally suited to play the amoral drifter who seduces married woman Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), the somewhat glamorized, diluted adaptation of a tough-as-nails James M. Cain novel that could have been written with Garfield in mind. He hit his peak in that post-WW2 period, portraying an ambitious musician in Humoresque (1946), an unprincipled boxer in Body and Soul (1947, an Oscar-nominated performance), and a racketeer's lawyer in Force of Evil (1948), all of them characterizations he brought to life with great passion and skill. He took a supporting role in Gentleman's Agreement (1947) because he believed so strongly in the film's purpose-to expose anti-Semitism in this country.

Garfield starred in We Were Strangers (1949), Under My Skin (1950), The Breaking Point (also 1950, a remake of To Have and Have Not with Garfield in the Humphrey Bogart role), and He Ran All the Way (1951) before running afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which couldn't find enough evidence to accuse him of being a Communist but managed to taint him just enough to get him blacklisted. (His left-wing political sympathies, a holdover from his Group Theatre days, were sufficiently suspicious for Hollywood executives). He died of a heart attack on May 21, 1952. Though he made many fine films, and never gave a bad performance, he has somehow escaped the latter-day fame and cult heroism that have been bestowed on fellow urban hero Bogart. Like Bogie, Garfield deserves to be lionized, and rediscovered. Both his son, David Patton, and his daughter, Julie, went into acting.


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