Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of John Garfield. Though he died from a heart attack at only 39 in 1952, his impact as an actor is still being felt. After all, there really couldn’t have been Marlon Brando if there hadn’t been Garfield before him. In the late 1930s, specifically with his Oscar-nominated work in Four Daughters (1938), Garfield brought a new kind of brooding realism to the screen. He combined cynicism with vulnerability, employing a style of simplicity and economy that has kept his work looking very modern. In my book Tennessee Williams and Company, I say that Garfield was “the transitional link between the Cagney-Robinson-Bogart trio of tough-guy actors to the Brando-Clift-Dean trio of rebel actors,” at ease in both worlds. Garfield is the only 1930s screen actor who can reasonably be imagined in the roles that Brando played in the 1950s. He was, as they say, ahead of his time. How ironic that, by turning down the role of Stanley Kowalski on Broadway in 1947, Garfield accelerated Brando’s rise, passing the baton to him sooner than later. And how sad that Garfield was dead just months after the film of A Streetcar Named Desire made Brando the newest sensation of the movies.
In my book 100 Great Film Performances You Should Remember But Probably Don’t, I included Garfield for what I believe to be his greatest performance, in The Breaking Point (1950) opposite Patricia Neal. He is also remembered, if not by enough people, for The Sea Wolf (1941), Pride of the Marines (1945), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Humoresque (1946), and Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). But if there’s a quintessential Garfield movie it would have to be Body and Soul (1947), for which he received his second Oscar nomination (and his only one for leading actor). His performance, as rising boxer Charley Davis, illustrates my point about Garfield stylistically belonging to both the ’30s and the ’50s: his acting combines the gumption of deprived but driven Depression-era heroes with the tortured angst and introspection of the more emotionally complicated male characters of the Eisenhower years. While seemingly looking both backward and forward, Garfield feels utterly contemporary.
Superbly photographed in black and white by the great James Wong Howe, and edited to Oscar-winning impact by Robert Parrish, Body and Soul was directed by Robert Rossen (The Hustler). Though very well made and consistently compelling, Rossen’s film is marred by its inability to balance Abraham Polonsky’s somewhat heavy-handed, Clifford Odets-type “realistic” screenplay with the stylized and more movie-ish trappings of 1940s film noir, resulting in an incompatible mix. While Garfield is eminently comfortable throughout, whether providing acting chops or star presence, the film itself has a much more uneven sense of tone.
Though his part lacks the layered depths of his role in The Breaking Point, Garfield fills in the outline of Charley, making him seem richer and fuller than he is on the page. As his love interest, lovely Lilli Palmer is an unexpected choice because of her lilting Central European accent and obvious sophistication, yet she and Garfield connect quite intimately and memorably. She plays a Greenwich Village painter, which explains a good bit of her definite distance from the film’s main milieu. She’s also a bit too good to be true, which is one of the key problems with the script. Everyone, aside from Garfield, is either too bad or too good. Garfield resides in the middle, corrupted, yes, but with enough decency to feel frustrated and guilty over it. In one corner you have Palmer, plus Anne Revere as Garfield’s tiresomely wise mother, and Joseph Pevney as Garfield’s devoted pal, each of whom gets to make speeches at Garfield regarding his eroding behavior. In the other corner, you have villain Lloyd Gough, so much the melodramatic B-movie hood that he almost seems a spoof. Then there’s luscious yet hard Hazel Brooks, the film’s greedy femme fatale.
It’s rare and refreshing to see a 1940s film with a central Jewish character and family, aside from a biopic like The Jolson Story (1946). It’s also rare and refreshing to see Canada Lee, a black actor, have a shot at a real acting role, as a boxer with an unfortunate fate. Despite the smug, labored moralizing and its too-easy ending, Body and Soul is a moody, sometimes hypnotic work with a satisfying flashback structure and a terrific “big fight” climax. Throughout the movie, as it pushes and pulls, wanting to be both a good old-fashioned movie-movie and a thought-provoking indictment of greed, there’s Garfield at the center, rising from the mean streets and supremely at home all along the way. He grounds the movie, sanding its rougher edges and making it the classic boxing film it has been since its initial release.