An original production for that cinema trove Turner Classic Movies, The John Garfield Story (2003) is a documentary about the ephemeral but everlasting career of John Garfield (1913-1952) who, in his brief career spanning from 1938-1952, redefined the Hollywood anti-hero in films such as Out of the Fog (1941), The Postman Always Rings Twice (196) and Force of Evil (1948). His was a wicked charm: more brutal than James Cagney, cagier than Edward G. Robinson, and more handsome than Humphrey Bogart. But his demeanor was more naturalistic than anything in Hollywood at that point; some might say his style was engendered by his lower-class upbringing, or perhaps his experience on the New York stage, but even there his markedly unaffected performances were new. Garfield’s arrival on both stage and screen was a cause célèbre that laid the foundation for such luminaries as Marlon Brando, Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. Even in someone like Michael Imperioli, the remnants of Garfield’s legacy are omnipresent.
The documentary, narrated by Garfield’s daughter Julie, runs a brief one hour but thoroughly covers the actor’s life from his rough beginnings in Manhattan’s Lower East Side through his tenure with the revolutionary Group Theater during the Depression, his quick rise to stardom in Hollywood, and his early death from coronary thrombosis in 1952. Many believe his death, due partly to a weak heart that afflicted the actor for many years, was brought on by the vicious anti-communist crusade that pilfered Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s: the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Garfield was never a member of the party himself—his wife was, his collaborators were (writer/directors Robert Rossen and Abraham Polonsky), and association was more than enough to land you a place on the Blacklist. Ironically, Garfield’s own patriotism was used against him: a USO visit to Yugoslavia marked him as a Communist (that the country was not official Communist when he visited, nor that the government sent him there, impacted the accusation).
The film’s strongest points are exploring the political, cultural and artistic context that surrounded Garfield. Director/co-writer David Heeley, along with co-writer Joan Kramer, use choice clips that display not only Garfield’s talent, but are also indicative of Warner’s strangulating type-casting, and Garfield’s struggle to break through. Clips from Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil exhibit the progressive attitude of Garfield’s own production company, Enterprise Productions. Actor Danny Glover, interviewed for the film, discusses the importance of casting Canada Lee as co-star for Body and Soul in a time when no studios would allow a black actor the same opportunities allowed white actors.
While Glover’s commentary is enlightening, many of the interviews featured in The John Garfield Story are merely dead weight. Actors Richard Dreyfuss and Joanne Woodward are so overzealous and melodramatic with their enthusiasm for Garfield that their sincerity is compromised. Excessive gushing is the plight of many documentaries, particularly biographies, where one is apt to overpay ones respect for the subject, and often the opposite is achieved: the interviewees draw too much attention to themselves and offer little insight into the subject. So inarticulate are some of the interviewees that it is as though the mere thought of John Garfield renders them speechless—the act is overwrought and embarrassing, and not a proper act of deference deserved of such a talent as Garfield’s. However, Glover, along with Hume Cronyn (who acted alongside Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice) and film scholar/historian Robert Sklar, illuminate Garfield’s complex history, his intricate acting abilities, and his radiating influence that continues to resound, never diminishing.
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