Jacob Garfinkle (John Garfield) was born in New York City on 4th March, 1913. His father, a clothes-presser, was a immigrant from Russia (Ukraine). The family lived in extreme poverty and after the death of his mother in 1920 Garfield was brought up by relatives.
Garfield was a poor student until he came under the influence of one of his teachers, Angelo Patri. Garfield later said that Patri "reached into the garbage pail and pulled me out." Patri encouraged Garfield to take up acting and helped him win a scholarship to the Heckscher Foundation Drama Workshop.
After leaving school Garfield travelled the country looking for work. He lived the life of a hobo until finding work as an apprentice with the Civic Repertory Theatre in 1932. Later that year Garfield joined the Group Theatre, an organization formed by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg. The group was a pioneering attempt to create a theatre collective, a company of players trained in a unified style and dedicated to presenting contemporary plays. Others involved in the group included Elia Kazan, Stella Adler, Luther Adler, Will Geer, Howard Da Silva, Franchot Tone, John Randolph, Joseph Bromberg, Michael Gordon, Paul Green, Clifford Odets, Paul Strand, Kurt Weill and Lee J. Cobb. Members of the group tended to hold left-wing political views and wanted to produce plays that dealt with important social issues.
While working at the Group Theatre, Lee Strasberg developed what became known as the Method. Based on the ideas of the Russian director, Konstantin Stanislavsky, it was a system of training and rehearsal for actors which bases a performance upon inner emotional experience, discovered largely through the medium of improvisation. Garfield appeared in several productions including Awake and Sing! and Waiting for Lefty. Both these plays were written by the Group Theatre's greatest playwright, Clifford Odets. During his time at the Group Theatre he married his childhood sweetheart, Roberta Seidman.
Garfield received excellent reviews for his performances with the Group Theatre and he was offered parts in Hollywood movies and in 1938 signed a seven year contract with Warner Brothers. His first film, Four Daughters , was well received and Garfield was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance. Over the next few years he made several films including Blackwell's Island (1939), Daughters Courageous (1939), Dust Be My Destiny (1939), Juarez (1939), They Made Me a Criminal (1939).
On the outbreak of the Second World War Garfield attempted to join the armed forces but failed his medical as a result of a heart condition. Desperate to make a contribution to the war effort Garfield joined with Bette Davis to form the Hollywood Canteen. This restaurant provided servicemen on leave in Los Angeles with free meals. Garfield also arranged for the men to be entertained at the Hollywood Canteen by some of the countries leading stars.
During the war Garfield made several films including Years Without Days (1940), Saturday's Children (1940), Flowing Gold (1940), East of the River (1940) , The Sea Wolf (1941), Dangerously They Live (1941), Out of the Fog (1941), Tortilla Flat (1942), Air Force (1943), Destination Tokyo (1943), The Fallen Sparrow (1943), Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), Between Two Worlds (1944), Forever in Love (1945), Nobody Lives Forever (1946) Humoresque (1946) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).
Garfield's contract with Warner Brothers expired in 1946. Unhappy with some of the films he had been forced to act in, he decided to opt out of the studio system and formed his own production company called Enterprise. He told the press: "I've saved every penny I made and now I'm going to do the pictures I want to do." His first film as an independent was Body and Soul . Written by Abraham Polonsky and directed by Robert Rossen the cast included several of Garfield's left-wing friends, including Canada Lee and Anne Revere.
In 1947 Garfield became involved in a film project, Gentleman's Agreement, that attempted to deal with the topic of anti-Semitism. Directed by Elia Kazan, it included a cast of people that shared Garfield's left-wing opinions including Anne Revere, Gregory Peck, Sam Jaffe, Joan Havoc and Jane Wyatt. The authors of Radical Hollywood (2002) have argued: "Garfield, as the returning Jewish soldier tired of hearing liberal talk about the 'poor little Jews', who hits the hardest, virtually demanding social change; and Anne Revere, the protagonist's mother, who vows to live on to see a better world." The film was a great success and won three Academy Awards.
Garfield also appeared in Daisy Kenyon (1947), Difficult Years (1948), Force of Evil (1948), We Were Strangers (1949), Jigsaw (1949), Under My Skin (1950), The Breaking Point (1950) and He Ran All the Way (1951).
During this period the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) opened its hearings concerning communist infiltration of the motion picture industry. The chief investigator for the committee was Robert E. Stripling. The first people it interviewed included Ronald Reagan, Gary Cooper, Ayn Rand, Jack L. Warner, Robert Taylor, Adolphe Menjou, Robert Montgomery, Walt Disney, Thomas Leo McCarey and George L. Murphy. These people named several possible members of the American Communist Party.
As a result their investigations, the HUAC announced it wished to interview nineteen members of the film industry that they believed might be members of the American Communist Party. This included Larry Parks, Herbert Biberman, Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., Samuel Ornitz, John Howard Lawson, Waldo Salt, Bertolt Brecht, Richard Collins, Gordon Kahn, Robert Rossen, Lewis Milestone and Irving Pichel.
The first ten witnesses called to appear before the HUAC, Biberman, Bessie, Cole, Maltz, Scott, Trumbo, Dmytryk, Lardner, Ornitz and Lawson, refused to cooperate at the September hearings and were charged with "contempt of Congress". Known as the Hollywood Ten, they claimed that the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to do this. The courts disagreed and each was sentenced to between six and twelve months in prison. The case went before the Supreme Court in April 1950, but with only Justices Hugo Black and William Douglas dissenting, the sentences were confirmed.
In June, 1950, three former FBI agents and a right-wing television producer, Vincent Harnett, published Red Channels, a pamphlet listing the names of 151 writers, directors and performers who they claimed had been members of subversive organisations before the Second World War but had not so far been blacklisted. The names had been compiled from FBI files and a detailed analysis of the Daily Worker, a newspaper published by the American Communist Party. A free copy was sent to those involved in employing people in the entertainment industry. All those people named in the pamphlet were blacklisted until they appeared in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and convinced its members they had completely renounced their radical past.
John Garfield appeared before the HUAC on 23rd April, 1951. He answer questions and denied he ever joined the American Communist Party or knew any of its members. He did admit to being a supporter of left-wing causes and during the 1930s had spoken at Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee meetings and in the 1948 Presidential Election he had advocated the election of Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party candidate.
Donald L. Jackson questioned Garfield's account about his knowledge of what was going on in Hollywood: "Do you contend that during the seven years or more that you were in Hollywood and in close contact with a situation in which a number of Communist cells were operating on a week-to-week basis, with electricians, actors, and every class represented, that during the entire period of time you were in Hollywood you did not know of your own personal knowledge a member of the Communist Party?"
Garfield replied: "When I was originally requested to appear before the committee, I said that I would answer all questions, fully and without any reservations, and that is what I have done. I have nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to hide. My life is an open book. I was glad to appear before you and talk with you. I am no Red. I am no pink. I am no fellow traveler. I am a Democrat by politics, a liberal by inclination, and a loyal citizen of this country by every act of my life."
Roy M. Brewer of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees appeared on 17th May. He testified that he did not believe that John Garfield was telling the truth. He argued that it was impossible for an actor in Hollywood and not to be aware of the power of the American Communist Party. "I do not think the opinion of one man is of much value, but I think if you could document the employment records of those individuals that were not acceptable to the Communist group as against those individuals who were in the forefront of it, I think you would find a rather substantial indication that there were influences at work. Those influences work in many, many ways. Lots of times the opinion of a secretary or of a clerk in a casting bureau can make the difference between whether one man is hired or another man is hired. I can see, from my standpoint, knowing the set-up in Hollywood, how easy it would be for an underground movement to use influence in such a way that an individual without such protection would be at a disadvantage, and I am of the definite opinion that was the case. I think it can be proven by records. I haven't attempted to do that, but in my judgment it could be done."
Some members of the Group Theatre like Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets and Lee J. Cobb testified and named other members of left-wing groups. Other former members, including Garfield, Stella Adler, Will Geer, Howard Da Silva, John Randolph, and Joseph Bromberg refused to give the names of left-wing friends and were blacklisted.
John Garfield died of a heart attack on 21st May, 1952. Only thirty-nine years old, his family and friends claimed that the stress brought on by McCarthyism was a major factor in his early death. His daughter later recalled: "It killed him, it really killed him. He was under unbelievable stress. Phones were being tapped. He was being followed by the FBI. He hadn't worked in 18 months. He was finally supposed to do Golden Boy on CBS with Kim Stanley. They did one scene. And then CBS canceled it. He died a day or two later."