Both the self-consciousness and social consciousness of people took a giant leap when film culture emerged as a new additional artistic voice in the history of the world. This new creative discipline based on the triple combination of written literature, theatrical drama, and pictorial art, differed radically from both traditional theatre and traditional mimetic fine art depiction, in that theatre exists in one spot with the actual presence of flesh and blood actors, whereas films are images, and their methodology can be duplicated, sent and shown anywhere with ease.
Also, unlike those centuries before the 20th Century when visual artists were used to depict reality, films can now document reality faster and with exactitude.
All this gave cinematic art a socially Utopian attractiveness which made those artists who decided to participate in its discipline realize they could influence both humans and the world they live in to be better, or more enjoyable. There is no doubt that since the invention of creative or imaginative film-making, the world and humans have become more tolerant, educated or enlightened about their inner human potential, both good and bad.
But such an advancement is not guaranteed to last, if each new generation is not continually exposed to the types of cinematic culture which helped push the world in this educated, enlightened, tolerant, and morally convincing direction. There are certain screen stars in cinematic history whose personal style and acting skills left us amazing and distinguished films of the highest social and moral value, and John Garfield is one of them. Indeed, he is one of the greatest of them all.
John Garfield, in his brief electrifying and exciting Hollywood career, between 1938 and 1951, when he made just about two dozen films, proved where creative film-making can help transform both the individual and society from generative poverty, waywardness, and rebellious anger, towards a reservoir of self-awareness, self-criticism, and social education.
Given that the social circumstances we may be born into is not wealthy or privileged, but nothing prevents our individual respect and pursuit of general knowledge and education, except our own attitudes and opinions, we may rise above whatever limitations we feel infringes on our life.
John Garfield, whose real name was Julius Garfinkle, was born in 1913 into poverty in the slums of New York City, in one of the popular Jewish ghetto neighbourhoods where there seemed no way out of one’s dire social situation.
However, like any modernizing society, American society offered freedom of knowledge and artistic pursuits, and this door to opportunity remained open for anyone, of any race or class, to show their ambition and talent. First of all, it must be imagined, judging from Garfield’s brilliant ear for dialogue, speech and intonation in his films, that as an unemployed youth, he, like others, spoke and argued about their situation among themselves, and that he no doubt read a lot of high-quality literature.
When Garfield saw a State debating competition offered by the New York Times, he entered and won. This fostered an interest in acting, which further involved him in acting classes, and this in turn led to the movie screen. Here, we must refer to the beginning of this essay, which introduced the important invention of cinematic art as an industry which both made use of individual talent, and by the roles projected in films, offered creative influence on the exposure and solution of diverse social and individual problems.
Garfield’s career is an extremely interesting example for modernizing societies anywhere today, because it traces the changes in the internationally influential Hollywood film industry that started out idealistic and effective, but by 1949 received its first blow when the American government renewed its anti-trust campaign against the economically booming film industry, and the subsequent trials and defamation of film directors and actors for their social ideas began the breakup of the collective studio system, resulting in the trivializing of previous highly artistic effective film-styles, whose continued production was replaced with watered-down commercialized TV films for mass consumption, both for American and foreign audiences.
The enormous amount of recent American trash films (and their worldwide imitators, one should add), apparently obsessed with violence, crime, airhead opinions and digital propaganda is the result of this breakdown of Hollywood’s past high standards, the aging and death of its great film directors and stars, and the inability (or disinterest) to make use of their outstanding creative legacy by contemporary film companies controlled commercially, but not creatively, by socially positive human ideals and convictions.
John Garfield’s career reflects the highs and lows of this fabulous art-form and industry of which he was one of its great heroes, as well as one of its blacklisted victims, collapsing from heart failure at age 39 in 1952, during the Hollywood witch-hunt trials for socialistic ideals in films.
John Garfield got his big film break in 1939, when the Warner Brothers Studio, the first great Hollywood studio of action and gangster films, made him one of the replacements for the company’s original stars in this genre, such as the famous James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Edward. G. Robinson, who had moved on to other diverse roles. Warner Brothers was a perfect example of the Film Studio whose policy of artistic freedom for its film directors, writers, and actors resulted in Hollywood’s fame sweeping the world.
Warner Brothers employed some of Hollywood’s greatest producers, such as Darryl Zanuck, Hal Wallis, and Jerry Wald; best directors such as Michael Curtiz (CASABLANCA), Howard Hawks, John Huston, Raoul Walsh, Delmer Daves, Anatole Litvak, etc; as well as scriptwriters like New York journalist, Mark Hellinger, and outstanding American novelists like William Faulkner, W.R. Burnett, Raymond Chandler, John Steinbeck, the socialistic Noble Prize-winning Californian writer, etc.
The Warner’s Film Studio style was created by directors who worked without a political agenda determined by studio heads; but these directors who made numerous films under the studio’s budget and creative freedom had to be widely knowledgeable and innovative. This gave their films an immediate freshness and balanced realistic truthfulness; it was the artistry of the studio which came first, not polemics.
Michael Curtiz’s direction of Garfield’s first two films for Warner’s ‘FOUR DAUGHTERS’ of 1938, and ‘DAUGHTERS COURAGEOUS’ of 1939, were not similar to the Depression era action films he soon did, but they introduced his infectious zest of personality, and convincing natural rapid speech tone, minus exaggeration.
Though the studio realized that the 1930s American economic depression era, with its widespread poverty, was a breeding ground for crime, the importance of art and cinematic art meant that their films had to go beyond reflecting one-sided social causes, and expose the psychological weaknesses and pathology of crime, and also the individual development of the psychopath.
This is the moral artistry behind classic gangster films from Warner Brothers films like ‘LITTLE CAESAR’ of 1930, starring Edward. G. Robinson, and directed by Mervyn Le Roy, adapted from the brilliantly-written, fast-paced W. R. Burnett novel, or ‘THE PUBLIC ENEMY’ of 1931, starring James Cagney and directed by William Wellman, where Cagney, as Tom, uses crime to climb out of the slums; or the profoundly interesting ‘WHITE HEAT’ of 1949, directed by Raoul Walsh, where James Cagney is an oedipal criminal psychopath in love with his mother, who advises and helps his criminal career.
Garfield’s crime films for Warner’s, like ‘THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL’ and ‘DUST BE MY DESTINY’ of 1939, ‘CASTLE ON THE HUDSON’ of 1940, and ‘OUT OF THE FOG’ of 1941, carry on the exposure of causes and motivations behind waywardness, from a gripping climactic moral perspective.
Roosevelt’s liberal views
Garfield was one of many cinematic artists, visual artists, and creative writers whose uncensored freedom to create was encouraged by the Franklin D. Roosevelt government, which introduced America’s greatest socialistic period, from 1933 to 1945, whose great liberal achievements were curtailed and reversed following the conservative post-war Truman presidency.
Garfield made a handful of stunning classic Hollywood films about World War II, such as ‘AIR FORCE’ of 1943, directed by Howard Hawks, and scripted by William Faulkner; ‘DESTINATION TOKYO’ of 1944, directed by Delmer Daves, and ‘PRIDE OF THE MARINES’ of 1945, directed again by Daves, all of which displayed his vivacity and increasing ability to act out roles of social responsibility while inspiring collective tolerance.
This shared a definite agreement with Roosevelt’s encouragement of Hollywood films to inspire more tolerance, not only among all Americans, but towards other nationalities, including the German, Japanese, and Soviet Russians, since Roosevelt realized that periodic animosities should not encourage permanent slurs and ridicule of other ethnicities and nationalities.
John Garfield’s outstanding liberal and socially-critical film roles throughout the 1940s would make him, to this day, a worldwide, beloved legend in the history of cinematic art, wherever individuals and societies and nations did not deceive themselves that they were beyond criticism, or were totally un-prejudicial, egalitarian, and perfect.