05/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Happy Birthday, You Hot, Genius Piece of Work

Though I frequently discuss actors I love/am in love with, I've not delved into that simmering, gorgeous genius of masculine menace, charm and vulnerability -- John Garfield -- nearly enough. He's one of my favorite actors (among a top three that alternate, but Garfield always remains), and an actor who almost literally knocked me for a loop when I first saw him on screen in The Postman Always Rings Twice. All that sensitive masculinity, intelligence and intense, noir sex appeal and I was a goner. Sure Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson's furious, flour-dusted fornication on the kitchen counter is damn erotic in the steamy re-make (which I do enjoy), but John and Lana need only to simply look at each other and...that's it. You know what they're up to later -- and the wondering is part of the picture's tremendous turn-on (not to mention Lana's lipstick).

But Mr. Garfield...perhaps like poor Priscilla Lane checking out all your tough guy artistry, smoking that ciggie while playing the piano in your unforgettable 1938 film debut (Four Daughters) you're just too much for me.  Like Joan Crawford's wide-eyed attraction and anger during your virtuoso "Flight of the Bumblebee" interlude in Humoresque, I just can't function properly when thinking about you.  I'm all moony and swoony and tongue tied and, aw nuts...let's just hitch-hike away from that depressing roadside diner. I don't care if my white suit gets dirty. And unlike Ms. Turner, I'll knock him in the head with a bottle if you want...whatever it takes. See, I can't think straight when regarding Garfield's formidable big screen sway.

But since today is his birthday, I had to discuss for recognition alone. Why isn't he supremely famous? A household name? Why isn't he better recognized? For reasons I cannot decipher, this brilliant, brooding actor, though well respected by those who know better, isn't considered the legend a la Bogart, Clift, Brando or Dean. Why isn't he better appreciated? This massive talent with genuine bad-boy street cred (he was born Julius Garfinkle and raised tough on the streets of Brooklyn and the Bronx) was a huge star in his day, so much so that his 1952 funeral was attended by more folks than Rudolph Valentino's ceremony.  So why have too many forgetten him? Where's his damn box set?

If you've never seen a John Garfield performance, you have been (in a supreme understatement) missing out. If you've only watched one or two, you're sorely behind. If you need to catch up, check (among many other pictures) his intense, oftentimes roughly romantic and edgy performances in movies such as Gentlemen's Agreement, They Made Me a Criminal, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Body and Soul, Force of Evil, The Breaking Point (the superior version of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not), Nobody Lives Forever, Humoresque, Flowing Gold, Between Two Worlds, We Were Strangers and (one of my favorites) He Ran All the Way -- his last film and a quite fitting one considering how he left this world. 

And God...what an exit, Mr. Garfield. In my mind, one of the first method actors (he trained in the famed Group Theater and worked with Clifford Odets), he was also victim to one of cinema's darkest, most shameful moments when the left-wing, progressive actor (and patriotic actor, he helped created The Hollywood Canteen for heaven's sake) testified at the scabrous House Un-American Activities Committee, who suspected him and certain colleagues, Communist. Unlike many other actors, writers and directors (including one of his former directors, Elia Kazan), Garfield refused to name names. As both a once young street tough and a man of principle, Garfield would not rat. Not surprisingly, work was then harder to come by and at the young age of 39, Garfield died of coronary thrombosis. Many speculate an already present heart condition was worsened by the stress caused by the House's inquisition. I think this assumption is correct. His mislabeling and death is so tragic that it angers me to this day.

Another reason I find it tough to write about Garfield. But I'll never stop watching his movies -- in many cases multiple times. Right now, in fact. He Ran all the Way awaits, yet again (and please stay tuned for my presentation of He Ran All the Way on a certain TV network in the coming months. Details to come later).

Happy Birthday to this hot genius piece of work. And here's to dropping that lipstick. Lana was lucky.

Read more Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun.