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John Garfield (1913 – 1952)

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John Garfield

John Garfield was a fighter all his life, taking on the Hollywood establish- ment, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and even his colleagues in the legendary Group Theatre. As a motherless child in the New York slums, he had to fight to survive. He fell naturally into clowning, performing for fellow gang members to win their support and protection. A teacher rescued him from a life of crime by channeling his energy into acting, which eventually led to his involvement with the Group Theatre. With the pioneering company, he studied the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavsky and the use of theater as a political tool. When the leading role in Golden Boy, which Clifford Odets had promised him, went to another actor, Garfield decided to accept an offer from Warner Bros. As a tryout, the studio cast him as a struggling composer in the family drama Four Daughters (138), and he stole the show with his natural acting and sarcastic delivery, becoming an overnight sensation. When the studio typecast him in similar roles, he rebelled by refusing pictures until he couldn’t afford not to work. With his popularity growing thanks to a loan- out to MGM for the classic film noir The Postman Always Pings Twice and then back home for Warner Bros.’ romantic drama Humoresque (both 1946), he decided not to renew his contract. Garfield became one of the first Hollywood stars to form his own production company, named Enterprises, scoring a hit with the boxing drama Body and Soul (1946). His next production, the crime exposé Force of Evil (1948), was less successful on its initial release but is now regarded as a cult classic. But disaster struck when Garfield refused to name names for the House Un-American Activities Committee during its investigations of alleged communist infiltration of the motion picture industry. Although he had devoted much of his free time during World War II to working with the USO and was a cofounder of the Hollywood Canteen, he was blacklisted as a dangerous subversive. He cleared his name to the extent that he could find sporadic work, but the situation left him estranged from his family, and he drank heavily and slept little. In 1952, he was found dead of a heart attack at the age of thirty-nine. Ten thousand fans mobbed his funeral in New York, the biggest such event since the death of silent screen star Rudolph Valentino.

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