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Rob Edelman: Garfield’s Breaking Point

The career of one of the great, unsung Hollywood actors is being spotlighted this month with the DVD and Blu-Ray Criterion Collection release of one of his lesser-known, underrated films. The actor is John Garfield and the film, which dates from 1950, is THE BREAKING POINT.

There is a small but loyal group of cineastes who remember and revere Garfield. I am one of them and I never tire of citing him, and touting him. I became enamored of Garfield years ago, upon discovering his films on television. His on-screen persona, that of the urban rebel hero, was enormously attractive to a young, fatherless boy growing up in a Brooklyn housing project. Additionally, he was born around the same time as my own father and died just a month later, in May 1952. I even dedicated my first book, Great Baseball Films, to my wife, my late parents, and “John Garfield (who never made a baseball movie).”

Now there is so much to say about Garfield. He was the original celluloid anti-hero, predating the Marlon Brandos and Montgomery Clifts, the James Deans and Paul Newmans. While never a member of the Communist Party, Garfield was a proud 1930’s-1940’s liberal and humanist. When called to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, he refused to name names and was blacklisted.

What I especially love about Garfield is the on-screen relationships with the African-American characters that appear in his latter films, the ones over which he had artistic control. Perhaps his best-known film is BODY AND SOUL, the classic 1947 boxing drama that won him his sole Best Actor Oscar nomination. Also cast in the film, as an aging former champion, is Canada Lee, the talented African-American actor who also fell victim to the blacklist. In the scenes between Garfield and Lee, their characters talk man-to-man. The Garfield character even asks the Lee character for advice. This of course was before the advent of the Civil Rights movement. It was a time in which blacks on-screen still were depicted in broad, stereotypical strokes, as maids and train porters who decimated the English language. 

That same year, Garfield-- though a major star-- accepted a supporting role in GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT, a film which acknowledged the reality of anti-Semitism in America. In GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT, Garfield plays a Jewish war veteran named Dave Goldman. In one scene, set in a posh restaurant, he almost punches out a racist who tosses his way an anti-Semitic epithet. The Dave Goldman character is no stereotypically passive Jew who meekly ignores the racist slight. Instead, he fights back. His response in this scene is a bold statement for its time, when millions of Jews had just perished in the Nazi concentration camps.

And then in THE BREAKING POINT, which has rarely been seen across the decades, his character shares a wonderful camaraderie with another African-American character. This one is played by an actor named Juano Hernandez, and their relationship is one of the most moving aspects of the film. THE BREAKING POINT, which is based on an Ernest Hemingway novel, is one of Garfield’s final screen credits. Sadly, when he died of a heart attack, he had not yet reached his fortieth birthday.

Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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