The Jewish Brando
John Garfield, the tough, underrated Hollywood star who would have turned 100 today, embodied Jewish pride
A half dozen years ago, while teaching a college class called “Jews & American Cinema: Outsiders In or Insiders Out?”, I asked each student to name the Jewish-American media figure they thought most prominent. Woody Allen got the most votes. The rest of the nominees were virtually all comedians (Larry David, Sarah Silverman, Milton Berle). Only one action star was cited (Kirk Douglas). No one was familiar with that week’s subject for discussion: John Garfield, the son of an immigrant clothes-presser, born Jacob Garfinkle in a Lower East Side tenement, 100 years ago, on March 4.
A tough, working-class kid who ran with gangs and was repeatedly expelled from school, young Garfinkle tried his hand at boxing, fell into acting (helped at one point by Yiddish stage star Jacob Ben-Ami), and found a home with the Depression radicals of the Group Theater. Passed over for the title role in Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy, he was among the first members of the Group to make it to Hollywood, signing with Warner Bros. in the late 1930s. Although the studio changed his name and he would not play a specifically Jewish character until Gentleman’s Agreement in 1947, he received extensive coverage in the Jewish press. Jewish audiences recognized Garfield as their first Hollywood leading man. Hollywood recognized that, given his emotional volatility, rapid-fire sarcasm, and confrontational sexual charisma, Garfield was a new sort of screen presence—a Brando before Brando.
Indeed, Garfield’s old Group Theater comrade Elia Kazan, who directed Garfield in Gentleman’s Agreement, had wanted him for the role of Stanley Kowalski in the original 1947 production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Had Garfield returned to the stage it would have changed showbiz history; however, Garfield had by then formed his own production company, an outfit largely staffed by like-minded, socially conscious leftists, many with backgrounds similar to his own. The prolonged congressional investigation into alleged communist influence in the movie industry, a period marked by blacklisting and hearings, likely contributed to the tightly wound star’s death by heart attack at age 39.
Garfield’s Enterprise (as his company was called) was short-lived and foredoomed. Still, it produced the two best movies he ever made—the boxing drama Body and Soul (1947), directed by Robert Rossen from Abraham Polonsky’s script; and numbers-racket noir Force of Evil (1948), which Polonsky co-wrote, with novelist Ira Wolfert, and also directed. Both of these tense, urban dramas feature Garfield as a Jewish street kid made good (and bad), a prize-fighter and a mob lawyer respectively; both have been newly released on Blu-Ray by OliveFilms in excellent transfers.
In Body and Soul, Garfield’s Charlie Davis turns his back on his working-class background—ignoring his mother’s plea that he “fight for something” not just money or fame. In the movie’s key scene, Charlie, now middleweight champion, stands on the brink of total corruption. He’s controlled by gangsters who have instructed him to throw the biggest fight of his career. At the same time he just reconciled with his fiancée (Lilli Palmer). They are visiting Charlie’s mother in her Lower East Side tenement when a delivery of groceries arrives. The admiring deliveryman is not just a fan who tells Charlie that the “whole neighborhood” is betting on him to win his next fight, but the personification of Charlie’s conscience; he praises America as the land of justice and opportunity where, despite the Nazi terror in Europe, a Jew can be champion. It’s a moment that spells out the fighter’s significance for his people—and perhaps Garfield’s as well.
Inspired in part by the story of boxer Barney Ross (as well as the plot of Golden Boy), Body and Soul was the most Jewish movie made in Hollywood since the 1927 version of The Jazz Singer. (Garfield not only played an explicitly Jewish character but had, as his love interest, a German-Jewish refugee.) Body and Soul is also very likely the reddest Hollywood movie ever. Communist Party members or associates included the director, the screenwriter, and the producer (Bob Roberts), as well as a much of the cast: Anne Revere (Charlie’s mother), Lloyd Gough (Charlie’s “owner”), Canada Lee (Charlie’s adversary and sparring partner), Art Smith (Charlie’s father), and Shimen Ruskin (the delivery man and, like Art Smith, a Group Theater graduate). Most would be blacklisted. Well before its release in late 1947, Body and Soul was being promoted by the Daily Worker and investigated by the government. (FBI files not only identify Rossen and Revere as Communists but complain that the movie’s portrayal of the corrupt fight promoter was putting “the rich and successful man in a bad light.”)
One of the outrages of a Brooklyn assemblyman’s notorious choice of Purim costumes is its effect on anti-Semitism