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John Garfield's film career was mostly built around playing sensitive tough-guys, and that persona wasn't too far from the actual man. The actor's groundbreaking screen work, which helped pave the way for such naturalistic performers as Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, sprang from a battered, often conflicted psyche. He could display great tenderness toward the people he loved, but he hated being told what to do, and it made for some stressful episodes during his relatively brief reign in Hollywood. This spiritual tug-of-war even added depth to Garfield's least promising roles, as can easily be seen in East of the River (1940), a down-and-dirty imitation of Manhattan Melodrama (1934) from Warner Bros.'s B-picture unit.
East of the River is no better or worse than any number of Warner programmers, but Garfield manages to periodically ignite the screen with the intensity that would serve him so well in future, far better-written roles. Garfield plays Joe Lorenzo, a bad-seed on Manhattan's mean streets who wanders from the path of goodness being followed by his adopted brother, Nick (William Lundigan), and soon finds himself in prison. After being released from San Quentin, Joe returns to the old neighborhood, where he promptly gets mixed up with some mobsters. If that isn't bad enough, Nick, who's now a college graduate, finds himself falling for Joe's girl, Laurie (Brenda Marshall). Marriage, guns and overblown melodrama ensue.
Garfield knew a thing or two about New York City street life, although certainly not the faux-poetic type found in East of the River. Born Jacob Julius Garfinkle, on March 4, 1913, he somehow survived a poverty-stricken childhood on the Lower East Side. Young "Julie," as he was known to his friends and family, was famous in the neighborhood for his ability to grab choice products from local merchants and outrun anyone who tried to catch him. Between his bent toward thievery and an intolerant, religious-fanatic father, it's a minor miracle that Julie Garfinkle managed to climbed out of the gutter at all, much less go on to be a popular and influential film star.
Simply put, Garfield found his salvation in acting. As an adult, he would regularly sing the praises of Angelo Patri, a school teacher who took a liking to him at P.S. 45. "For reaching into the garbage and pulling me out," he once said, "I owe (Patri) everything." With Patri's encouragement, Garfield began performing in school plays. Julie needed solid grades in order to join the drama club, so his book-smarts were quickly broadened due to his love of performing. Eventually, he began to dream of a career as a professional actor. After scoring big on Broadway, he made his way to Hollywood, and the rest, as they say, is history.
If Jack Warner had been paying closer attention, he might have realized that The John Garfield Story would have made a terrific movie.
Producer: Harlan Thompson, Jack L. Warner
Director: Alfred E. Green
Screenplay: Fred Niblo, Jr. (based on the story Mama Ravioli by John Fante and Ross B. Wills)
Editing: Thomas Pratt
Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Art Design: Hugh Reticker
Costume Design: Howard Shoup
Technical Advisor: Marie Jenardi
Principal Cast: John Garfield (Joe Lorenzo), Brenda Marshall (Laurie Romayne), Marjorie Rambeau (Teresa Lorenzo), George Tobias (Tony), William Lundigan (Nick Lorenzo), Moroni Olsen (Judge Davis), Douglas Fowley (Cy Turner), Jack LaRue ("Frisco" Scarfi), Jack Carr ("No Neck" Griswold), Paul Guilfoyle (Balmy), Russell Hicks (Warden).
BW-74m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara