Saturday, January 14, 2006

Good Morning Mr. Garfield

Must I tell the story of my life again?
John Garfield

It's a dreary Saturday morn; unseasonably warm outside and overcast, with passing thunderstorms.

A crash of thunder woke me up around five so I figured that was my wake-up-call for the day and put on a pot of coffee and switched on the television.

There he was on Turner Classic Movies; that cocky guy with the smirk on his face and the swagger in his walk. John Garfield.

I ask you, was there ever a man who embodied cool like Garfield?

Coming from New York City's lower east side, John Garfield was a hyper-active little boy with not much going for him when a teacher at his middle school saw his potential and guided him to the school's theatre department.

In his teens, Garfield did some professional stage work, but also spent a few years hitchhiking across country until finally he found his way back to New York and back to the theatre. In 1932, having honed his craft, Hollywood came calling and John went west to make his fortunes.

On the silver screen the world watched as he played: a boxer who got framed, a tough guy who snarks his way into heaven, a virtuoso violinist who romances Joan Crawford, a bad boy who torments Shelly Winters and her family (which I wrote about here), and of course, a drifter who convinces Lana Turner to knock off her husband...

While everything was aces on screen, John's wife, Robbie, joined him in tinsel town. Of course being a big star with a gorgeous mug, it appears that women threw themselves at Garfield, and he, ever the gentleman, obliged many of them

With the death of his daughter, Katherine in 1945, the cool movie star slipped into something of a depression, and adding to that were the problems brought on when the House Un-American Activities Committee decided to investigate him because of his liberal past and his association with a theatre group in that hot-bed of communism, Greenwich Village.

Ever the tough guy, Garfield refused to play along with the HUAC and would not "name names" - which in turn led to less and less film offers coming his way (another reason to curse Roy Cohn and hope he's being flayed for an eternity under Ethel Rosenberg's watchful eye).

Suddenly, seen as an outcast and feeling like one; Garfield went on drinking binges and distanced himself from his family...

...John Garfield died of a heart attack at the age of 39 in the apartment of an ex-showgirl.

What is it about these gods and goddesses of the silver screen who live fast and die young? Is it the fact that we never get a chance to see them grow old and fat? Is that what makes them immortal in the public mind?

Who knows.

For me, Garfield remains the epitome of tough-guy cool and class. Whatever demons drove him to a downward spiral of booze and pills and an untimely death are of little consequence today. What matters now is that on this unseasonably warm and rainy Saturday morning, I can turn on the television and find him there...or at least his image and his voice that has been preserved through cinematic alchemy, and for a couple of hours be transported to the dark side of town with this tough little guy with a smirk on his face and a swagger in his walk.

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