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The Jewish Brando

John Garfield, the tough, underrated Hollywood star who would have turned 100 today, embodied Jewish pride

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John Garfield, 1943. (John Swope/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
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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.”)

Body and Soul was a critical success. (Bosley Crowther ended his New York Times review by declaring, “Altogether this Enterprise picture rolls up a round-by-round triumph on points until it comes through with a climactic knockout that hits the all-time high in throat-catching fight films.”) It was also a commercial hit that proved to be domestic distributor United Artists’ top money-maker of 1947. The movie was nominated for three Oscars—including actor and original screenplay—won one, for film editing, and made possible a more radical follow-up, Force of Evil.

In Force of Evil, Garfield plays another poor kid who has risen up from Manhattan’s mean streets. Joe Morse is a slick, ambitious lawyer who implements a fix that will allow his criminal boss to consolidate his gambling racket by driving small numbers banks out of business. One of these banks is run out of a Lower East Side tenement by Morse’s delusional older brother Leo (Thomas Gomez), who is set up and killed.

An obvious art film, Force of Evil (which was voted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1994) was made with a surplus of shadows and a surfeit of colorful characters and is completely unambiguous in its insistence on capitalism as crime. (“Waddaya mean gangsters—it’s business,” one enforcer whines, nearly a quarter century before The Godfather.) The opening line “This is Wall Street” hangs over the dealings. Much of the action is overshadowed by the skyscrapers of New York’s financial district, while Leo’s neighborhood bank suggests nothing so much as a Ma and Pa candy store or a struggling dress factory.

Polonsky set his story during the Depression to provide motivations for the honest characters involved in the racket; most likely to placate the Breen office censors, he concocted a framing narrative. The narrative would unfold in flashback with Joe Morse giving testimony in the state rackets probe. Unavoidably recalling the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings of the previous year (and eerily anticipating the star’s own fate), the device was dropped in favor of Garfield’s voice-over explanation when the movie reached theaters in late 1948.

By then, Force of Evil lost approximately 20 minutes when Garfield’s failing studio sold the movie to MGM, which then released it as a B feature. Body and Soul, by contrast, was shortened by less than 10 seconds, but that small cut to the body cost the movie much of its soul, and thereby hangs a tale.

A few years ago, Annette Insdorf, Columbia professor and the author of Indelible Shadows, the first history of film and the Holocaust, forwarded me an email she had received from Chicago Police Officer Maurice Richards, regarding an apparent cut in the DVD he had recently purchased of Body and Soul. “It isn’t the money, it’s his way of showing,” the delivery man says when Charlie guiltily advises him that betting is foolish. The next 20 words—“In Europe, the Nazis are killing people like us just because of their religion. But here, Charlie Davis is champion”—are gone, leaving only his final statement, “and we are proud.”

The omission, Lt. Richards wrote, is “disgraceful, outrageous and deliberate. The anti-Nazi content and speaking out against the Holocaust has been purposefully removed from the film. New generations of viewers will never be able to see and appreciate the true legacy of this great work of art and Jewish heritage.” He further called for a “thorough investigation” of the deletion: “It is important to find out when, by whom, and if possible, why this was done.”

Prof. Insdorf made a number of inquiries on the lieutenant’s behalf. (I was one person she contacted and was able to ascertain that the change was not made for TV—the 16mm television print did have the missing 20 words.) Eventually, Patricia Hanson, of the American Film Institute, figured out that Republic Pictures Home Video had released two VHS versions of Body and Soul; the 1986 version included the complete dialogue while a 1992 “45th anniversary edition” (advertised as “digitally remastered from the original”) did not and was identical to the Artisan Home Entertainment DVD purchased by Lt. Richards. “Because of various controversies surrounding the film,” she noted, “it is very likely that the cut was made on the master decades ago.”

The most reasonable explanation for the cut was given to me by Dave Kehr, the extremely knowledgeable film critic who writes a weekly DVD column for the Sunday New York Times. The 1992 version was likely remastered from an export negative. Pointing out that a small studio like Enterprise had no overseas distribution, he theorized that whoever had licensed the movie from Enterprise in the late ’40s cut their negative out of deference to the West German market. No Jews, no Nazis, no Holocaust, no offense. In any case, the OliveFilms Blu-Ray, evidently made from the Enterprise negative, is complete, and the meaning of the movie as an expression of Jewish pride and solidarity—and Garfield’s significance as its embodiment—has been made whole.


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marjorie ingall says:

Must. See. This. Film.

    Laila Rasheed says:

    “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″.

    The first cabinet of Germany in the year 1918 was composed of Jews.

    1. Preuss, Minister of
    the Interior.

    2. Freund, Minister of the Interior.

    3. Landsberg, Finance Minister.

    4. Karl Kautski, Finance Minister.

    5. Schiffer, Finance Minister.

    6. Eduard Bernstein, secretary of the State Treasury.

    7. Fritz Max Cohen, director of the official information service. (This Jew was
    earlier correspondent of the Jewish “Frankfurter Zeitung”).

    The second “German Socialist government” of
    1918 was formed of the following Jews:

    1. Hirsch, Minister of
    the Interior.

    2. Rosenfeld, Justice Minister.

    3. Futran, Minister of education.

    4. Arndt, Minister of education.

    5. Simon, State secretary of finances.

    6. Kastenberg, director of the department of science and art.

    7. Strathgen, director of colonial department.

    9. Wurm, secretary of food.

    10. Merz, Weil, Katzenstein, Stern, Lowenberg, Frankel, Schlesinger,
    Israelowitz, Selingsohn, Laubenheim, etc., took up high posts in the

    Among the remaining Jews who controlled the sectors vital to life of the German state, which had been defeated through the American intervention in the war, were found in the year 1918, and later:

    1. Kohen, President of the German workers and soldiers councils (similar to the Soviet council of soldiers and workers of Moscow in the same year).

    2. Ernst, police president of Berlin.

    3. Sinzheimer, police president of Frankfurt.

    4. Lewy, police president of Hessen.

    5. Kurt Eisner, Bavarian state president.

    6. Jaffe Bavarian finance minister.

    7. Brentano, Industry, trade and transport minister.

    8. Talheimer, minister in Württemberg.

    9. Heimann, another minister in Württemberg.

    10. Fulda, in the government of Hesse.

    11. Theodor Wolf, chief editor of the newspaper “Berliner Tageblatt.”

    12. Gwiner, director of the “Deutsche Bank”.10

    Hungary in the year 1919. On 20th March 1919 the Jew Bela Kun (Cohn) took over power in Hungary and proclaimed the Hungarian Soviet republic, which from that moment on was submerged in a hair-raising sea of blood. Twenty-eight (28) Commissars formed with him the new government and of these 18 were Israelites. That is an unheard of proportion, when one bears in mind that in Hungary lived one and a half million Israelites compared to 22 million inhabitants. The 18 Commissars held the actual control of rulership in their hands and the eight Gentile Commissars could do nothing against them.11

    “More than 90% of the members of the government and the confidence men of Bela Kun were also Jews. Here follows a list of members of the Bela Kun government:

    1. Bela Kun, general secretary of the Jewish government.

    2. Sandor Garbai, “official” president of the government, who was used by the
    Jews as a Hungarian man of straw.

    3. Peter Agoston, deputy of the general secretary; Jew.

    4. Dr. E. Landler, Peoples commissar for internal affairs; Jew.

    5. Bela Vago, deputy of Landler, a Jew with the name Weiss.

    6. E. Hamburger, Agriculture Commissar; Jew.

    7. Vantus, deputy of Hamburger; Jew.

    8. Csizmadia, deputy of Hamburger; Hungarian.

    9. Nyisztor, deputy of Hamburger; Hungarian.

    10 Varga, Commissar for financial affairs; Jew by name Weichselbaum.

    11. Szkely, deputy of Varga; Jew by name Schlesinger.

    12. Kunftz, Education minister; Jew by name Kunstater.

    13. Kukacs, deputy of Kunfi; a Jew, who in reality was chilled Lowinger and was
    the son of the director-general of a banking house in Budapest.

    14. D. Bokanyi, Minister of labour; Hungarian.

    15. Fiedler, deputy of Bokanyi; Jew.

    16. Jozsef Pogany, War Commissar; a Jew, who in reality was called Schwartz.

    17. Szanto, deputy of Pogany; a Jew named Schreiber.

    18. Tibor Szamuelly, deputy of Pogany, a Jew named Samuel.

    19. Matyas Rakosi, trade Minister; a Jew, who in reality was called Matthew
    Roth Rosenkrantz, present Communist dictator.

    20. Ronai, Commissar of law; a Jew named Rosentstegl.

    21. Ladai, deputy of Ronai; Jew.

    22. Erdelyi, Commissar of supply; a Jew named Eisenstein.

    23. Vilmas Boehm, Socialisation Commissar; Jew.

    24. Hevesi, deputy of Boehm; a Jew named Honig.

    25. Dovsak, second deputy of Boehm; Jew.

    26. Oszkar Jaszai, Commissar of nationalities; a Jew named Jakubovits.

    27. Otto Korvin, political examining Commissar; a Jew named Klein.

    28. Kerekes, state lawyer; a Jew named Krauss.

    29. Biro, chief of the political police; a Jew named Blau.

    30. Seidem, adjutant of Biro; Jew.

    31. Oszkar Faber, Commissar for liquidation of Church property; Jew.

    32. J. Czerni, commander of the terrorist bands, which were known by the name
    “Lenin youth”; Hungarain.

    33. Illes, supreme police Commissar; Jew.

    34. Szabados, supreme police Commissar; a Jew named Singer.

    35. Kalmar,
    supreme police Commissar; German Jew.

    36. Szabo, supreme police Commissar; Ruthenian Jew, who in reality was called

    37. Vince, Peoples Commissar of the city of Budapest, who in reality was called

    38. M. Kraus, Peoples Commissar of Budapest;

    39. A. Dienes, Peoples Commissar of Budapest;

    40. Lengyel, President of the Austro-Hungarian bank; a Jew named Levkovits.

    41. Laszlo, President of the Communist revolutionary court; a Jew, who in
    reality was called Lowy.12

    In this government which for a time held Hungary in thrall, the chief of the Hungarian Cheka Szamuelly, besides Bela Kun, distinguished himself through countless crimes and plunderings. While the latter rode through the land in his luxury automobile (with the symbol of a large gallows mounted on the vehicle, and accompanied by his capable Jewish woman secretary R. S. Salkind, alias Semliachkay), the former travelled through Hungary in his special train and sowed terror and death, as a contemporary witness describes:

    “That train of death travelled snorting through the black Hungarian nights; where it stopped, one saw people hanging from trees and blood which ran on the ground. Along the railway line naked and mutilated corpses were to be seen. Szamuelly dictated his judgements in his train, and whoever was forced to enter never lived to tell the tale of what he saw. Szamuelly lived constantly in this train. Thirty selected terrorists ensured his security. Selected executioners accompanied him. The train consisted of two saloon wagons, two first-class wagons, which were occupied by the terrorists, and two third-class wagons for the victims. In the latter executions were carried out. The floor of this wagon was stiff with blood. The corpses were thrown out of the windows, while Szamuelly sat comfortably in the elegant workroom of his compartment which was upholstered in rose-coloured damask and decorated with polished mirrors. With a movement of the hand he decided over life or death

Both of these films are incredible. Force of Evil also benefits from one of David Raksin’s finest scores. He was particularly proud of it.

He is reported to have died playing tennis which is alright if your heart is Okay,..It seems Garfield also did a film opposite Joan Crawford in which he played a violinist.Conrad Veidt died on the golf course and his reported age was 49. One would imagine that recreation would not be the field of dying.
One of the memorable films was a German film made before 1942 (when I was in USC film dept) was called Koenigstragedie. There were only chesspieces, with inspired lighting, and splendid music. The checkmate of the king and his fall left me in tears. No apparent hands moved the pieces. I saw it only once and never forgot it.
Another favorite was designated “box office poison” Ben Hecht’s The Scoundrel with Noel Coward. The Hecht-MacArthur script won the Academy award. The cast was a heavy weight group. 1935? Somehow, it’s difficult to find except in some film archives, UCLA.

    He was in bed with a girlfriend when he had a massive infarct and died without resuscitation.
    His real name wasn’t Jacob Garfinkel, it was Jules, and he was called Julie.
    Larry Gaum

Laila Rasheed says:

I thought Garfield was a CAT!


    Rich Ross says:

    Laila, when do you think the arab world will emerge from the Dark Ages and enter the modern One? Or will that be impossible as long as they allow their lives to be ruled by Islam.

disqus_kKlH5I6gDR says:

Too cool.

J Levin says:

If you select his best according to their leftist orthodoxy, oh well… But The Postman Always Rings Twice is an incredible film The erotic sexual tension between Garfield and Lana Turner demonstrate that the Hayes Committee censorship did not prevent Hollywood from making an adult film.

Dave says:

“I asked each student to name the Jewish-American media figure they thought most prominent. Woody Allen got the most votes.”

Wow, what a shocker, the ugliest Jew in the history of the world wins the poll. That and the rest of the results (Larry David, gag me with a spoon) are exactly thanks to people like you, J. Hoberman.

BTW, the first Jewish leading man was Broncho Billy Anderson, who also happened to be the first movie star, period. The first Jew to win Best Actor is Paul Muni, who won for 1936 (Jewish Luise Rainer won Best Actress for that year, and the following). I wonder if your students had heard of any of them? Or were they too much of racist drones?

John Garfield must somehow be related to the current Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield. Garfield’s grandfather changed his surname from Garfinkel, which isn’t too far off from John Garfield’s Garfinkle. And btw, Andrew Garfield had to beat out a lot of other young Jewish actors to get that role. I guess they were too busy not being annoying comedians.

tendilla says:

I’m a huge movie fan and collector of movies old & new. John Garfield was always one of my favorites. Although he died when I was a small kid, my mother was a fan….over the years I’ve collected all but one of his movies via TCM. I read his Bio and it claimed he died in bed with his girlfriend…although he loved his wife and family he was a big “Chaser”. It also said Garfield had a bad heart…and the combination of doing too much strenuous excercise during his final film, the huge strain of the hearings and being (about to be) Blacklisted, playing tennis on his last day…and ending up in bed with his girlfriend did him in. He was so hugely popular his funeral drew the most fans since Rudolph Valentino. Unfortunately although he was always GREAT in a variety of roles…he made mostly “B” movies that didn’t show off his tremendous talent…and most don’t hold up today. Among his best that do are: “Postman” with the sexy, young & gorgeous Lana Turner, “Tortilla Flat” with Spenser Tracy, “Force of Evil”, the wonderful classic “Gentleman’s Agreement” with Greg Peck, Pride of the Marines and the Sea Wolf & “Humoresque”.

The bio tells a story to illustrate his sexual attraction to his leading ladies…On the first day of shooting “Humoresque”, Joan Crawford offered Garfield a ride home but first she wanted to stop at her house…as they entered she started up the stairs…then turned and dropped her clothes and said “…we both know it’s gonna happen so let’s just get it out of the way now”…and so they did.

As far as early Jewish Actors go…Broncho Billy was the First Cowboy Great, add Peter Lorre, Theda Bara, Leslie Howard, Hedy Lamar (the most beautiful and smartest woman in the world), The Marx Brothers, Paulette Godard, Silvia Sydney, Douglas Fairbanks (half ??)…later Paul Newman, Tony Curtis, Jeff Chandler, etc.

Finally….it’s been proven more than once…much of the McCarthy Communist Hearings were rooted in Anti-Semitism….and most victims were Jews!!!! Since the Jews were/are strongly liberal and charitable…and during WW2…Russia was on our side…joining Russian “Help” organizations was a natural for them. Later this was held up as red herring!!!

Richard Weltz says:

It wasn’t “Garfield’s Enterprise.” The shortlived film company named “Enterprise” was founded and owned by my Uncle, Charles Einfeld, formerly a Vice President at Warners and subsequently a Vice President at 20th Century-Fox. Einfeld persuaded Garfield to take the role, correctly noted as one of his best. A private showing of “Body and Soul” was made in our Upper West Side apartment for my invalid grandmother, Einfeld’s mother. Einfeld also persuaded Ingrid Bergman to return to the US from her self-imposed exile and star in his production of “Arch of Triumph.”


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The Jewish Brando

John Garfield, the tough, underrated Hollywood star who would have turned 100 today, embodied Jewish pride