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John Garfield finds himself typecast by Warner Brothers once again in Castle on the Hudson (1940), a remarkably faithful remake of the Spencer Tracy vehicle 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932). In Tracy's old role, Garfield stars as Tommy Gordon, a jewel thief serving a 25-year-minimum sentence but expecting his political pals on the outside to help spring him from prison. Pat O'Brien plays the reform-minded yet kind-hearted warden who helps Tommy see the error of his ways, and Ann Sheridan (in the role previously played by Bette Davis) is the faithful girl-he-left-behind.
Garfield was on voluntary suspension from Warner Bros. because of dissatisfaction with roles the studio was offering him (usually criminals or prison inmates) when he was sent the script for Castle. His reported response when offered one more prison saga was, "Parole me!" It was director-screenwriter-producer Robert Rossen, a friend of Garfield's, who persuaded him to take on Tracy's old role. Garfield agreed to do the film provided the studio would not change the original ending, which had Tommy going to the electric chair to cover for the girlfriend, who had shot and killed a treacherous lawyer. When the film opened, The New York Times began its review by joking, "This is merely a routine notice that Mr. John Garfield, formerly of the Group Theatre, who was recently sentenced to a term in Warner Bros. Pictures, is still in prison."
Garfield had some trepidation about succeeding the highly regarded Tracy -- and, indeed, some critics accused the younger actor of borrowing from both Tracy and James Cagney in his performance. When the film is viewed today, however, it's easy to see that Garfield made the role his own. In later describing his preparation for the climactic execution scene, he explained how he used his Method training to make the experience seem real: "Naturally I hadn't ever been to the chair before, so it required a little imagination to go back into my past and find the emotion I needed... When I got onstage for the first performance of Awake and Sing (his first major stage role with the Group Theatre), it felt like the electric chair...and that feeling is what I was remembering when the movie cameras were grinding."
Producer: Anatole Litvak, Hal B. Wallis (Executive Producer), Samuel Bischoff (Associate)
Director: Anatole Litvak
Screenplay: Seton I. Miller, Brown Holmes, Courtney Terrett, from book Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing by Warden Lewis E. Lawes
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Art Direction: John Hughes
Original Music: Adolph Deutsch
Editing: Thomas Richards
Costume Design: Howard Shoup
Principal Cast: John Garfield (Tommy Gordon), Ann Sheridan (Kay Manners), Pat O’Brien (Warden Walter Long), Burgess Meredith (Steven "Steve" Rockford), Henry O’Neill (District Attorney), Jerome Cowan (Ed Crowley).
BW-78m. Closed captioning.
by Roger Fristoe