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Dust Be My Destiny

Dust Be My Destiny(1939)

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teaser Dust Be My Destiny (1939)

Although his performing style wasn't quite as revolutionary as Marlon Brando's, John Garfield definitely helped pave the way for such modern screen performers as Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, and James Caan. Garfield was an actor of great intelligence and passion, and the street toughs he inevitably portrayed always seemed wounded in some unspoken way. Much like the volatile group of counterculture actors who came of age in the Seventies, Garfield's characters seemed forever on the verge of exploding from the sheer pressure of it all...whatever "it" happened to be. He was the very definition of a live wire.

Dust Be My Destiny (1939), a standard programmer from Warner Bros., was the first of several "final straws" for Garfield, who had left the New York stage in pursuit of interesting big screen roles, only to be typecast in picture after picture as a convict. In this one, he plays Joe Bell, a just-released prisoner who (as is so often the case in these films) was sent away for a crime he didn't commit. Joe is eventually picked up again, this time being packed off to a work farm, where he falls in love with the daughter (Priscilla Lane) of the drunken prison boss. When the boss dies, everyone assumes he was murdered by Bell, who escapes with the girl in tow.

There's a manhunt, of course, and a crusading district attorney. And, just as obviously, there's also a crusading newspaper editor. It's no wonder Garfield was getting bored after just a handful of Warner pictures. He and the rest of the cast lend far more power to Dust Be My Destiny than the screenplay really deserves. John Nugent, a critic for the New York Times summed it up nicely when he wrote: "Considering the practice (Warner Bros.) has had, it's not surprising that the picture goes its way smoothly, never missing a dramatic cue, a pause for laughter, a perfectly timed spurt of action when the utter futility of it all begins to grow so utterly utter."

It's common knowledge that Warner Bros. liked to pigeonhole its strongest performers, then drive them into the ground as they churned out what often amounted to easily-digested genre films. They did it to Bogart, they did it to Cagney, and they tried to do it to Garfield. But it was Garfield who steadfastly refused to play the Hollywood game, almost from the beginning. Today, Dust Be My Destiny is probably best remembered as the picture that caused Garfield to protest the Warner Bros. assembly line, even though his suspension by the higher-ups cost him a considerable amount of money. But he was happy to play tennis while the studio's writers cooked up a role for him that wasn't set, even partially, in a penitentiary. It would be the first of several suspensions that he would endure during his relatively brief career.

One could argue, though, that, at the end of his life, Garfield was on the verge of caving in to pressure in order to avoid the ultimate suspension. Like so many Hollywood players of the period, he leaned to the left politically and even had connections to some Communist organizations. Initially, Garfield talked circles around the pointed questions being fired at him by the members of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He displayed a decidedly selective memory about his past, obviously aiming to go on with his career without having to name names for the witch-hunters.

When HUAC eventually started implying that it would gladly jail Garfield for perjury, even if he was never actually a card-carrying Communist, it seemed that the actor was ready to cross over to the right in order to save himself. It was reported that he visited the FBI, and even made nice with columnist Victor Reisel, a right-winger who had loudly criticized Garfield at a Hollywood anti-Communist rally. Garfield's real intentions would never be known, however. After falling ill at a restaurant, he suddenly died of a heart attack in his friend's Gramercy Park apartment, at the age of 39.

Producer: Louis F. Edelman
Director: Lewis Seiler
Screenplay: Robert Rossen (based on a novel by Jerome Odlum)
Cinematographer: James Wong Howe
Editor: Warren Low
Principal Cast: John Garfield (Joe Bell), Priscilla Lane (Mabel), Alan Hale (Mike Leonard), Frank McHugh (Caruthers), Billy Halop (Hank), Bobby Jordan (Jimmy), Charley Grapewin (Pop), Henry Armetta (Nick), Stanley Ridges (Charlie), John Litel (Prosecutor), Moroni Olsen (Slim Jones), Victor Kilian (Doc Saunders).
B&W-88m. Closed captioning.

by Paul Tatara

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