John Garfield: The Original Rebel Blogathon — My Analysis of Between Two Worlds (1944)

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Hello, everyone! I know I’ve been a bit busy these last few months, but I’m trying my best to squeeze in a few blogathon entries and perhaps a new series that I have in the works that my readers are sure to enjoy before I host my next blogathon (you can vote for what my blogathon will be about here). Today I’ll be beloved actor John Garfield on the day after what would have been his 104th birthday, and I’d like to start things off by thanking Phyllis of Phyllis Loves Classic Movies for the opportunity to write about such an underrated actor and film. So without further ado I’d like to wish Mr. Garfield a very happy belated birthday, and on with the post!

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Theatrical poster for Between Two Worlds (1944).

In this film, we meet a diverse group of people hoping to board an ocean liner for America at the height of World War Two. All seems to be well until an Austrian pianist and French Resistance veteran named Henry Bergner (Paul Henried) is denied passage for himself and his wife due to lack of an exit permit. Leaving the premises in despair, the audience soon sees his equally distraught wife Ann (Eleanor Parker) searching for Henry in the street amongst the chaos and uproar of a German air raid. She witnesses one of the many falling bombs destroy a car full of passengers on their way to the docks, and hurries home to find Henry attempting suicide by subjecting himself to gas exposure. Rather than putting forth much effort to save him, she intends to join him in death, and soon the two find themselves onboard the ship on which they were denied entry at the film’s beginning. Ann and Henry soon realize that they are dead and find themselves happy to spend an eternity together, especially after Henry finds that he can once again play piano after what was undoubtedly post-traumatic stress disorder caused his hands to shake uncontrollably. Ann also recognizes some of the other passengers on the ship as the very same people who were killed in the air raid, while Henry sees some of the people who were with him in the ship’s office when he was not allowed onboard. Eventually the audience meets all of the ship’s commuters, including cynical drinker and newspaper man Thomas Prior (played by our birthday boy John Garfield) and his girlfriend Maxine Russell (Faye Emerson), the rich and powerful Mr. Lingley (George Coulouris), the steward of the ship Scrubby (played by the always incredible character actor Edmund Gwenn), shy priest Reverend William Duke (Dennis King), sailor Pete Musick (George Tobias), wealthy yet mismatched couple Genevieve and Benjamin Cliveden-Banks (Isobel Elsom and Gilbert Emery), and a sweet elderly woman named Mrs. Midget (Sara Allgood).

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George Colouris, John Garfield, Faye Emerson, and Edmund Gwenn in Between Two Worlds (1944).

With the exception of Henry, Ann, and Scrubby, no one onboard knows that they are dead, and one by one we get a glimpse into each person’s lives, motivations, and desires. We find out that Mr. Lingley used his power in order to get Thomas Prior fired for writing unsavory articles about him, and while Thomas is drinking and blowing off steam about it, we also learn that his girlfriend Maxine doesn’t want to be with him anymore and begins to cozy up to Mr. Lingley due to his wealth and position. Meanwhile, Henry and Ann meet Pete Musick, and are about to tell him that he is deceased when Scrubby intercedes, telling the couple that the passengers need to find out in their own time and way. Everyone convenes at dinner, and the discussion of new beginnings upsets Ann so much that she flees the room in tears. Both friends and enemies are made onboard the ship, and eventually our star of the day’s character Thomas Prior is the fourth to find out that everyone is dead after overhearing Henry and Ann discussing it, though it seems that he was already beginning to form the suspicion of it himself. Already dumped at this point by his girlfriend Maxine for Mr. Lingley, Thomas decides to get his revenge by setting up a magic show which ultimately informs the rest of the travelers that they are lifeless as well, ending it in a “spectacular” finale in which Tomas shoots Mr. Lingley in the chest and doesn’t harm him at all. Soon the cat is out of the bag, and Scrubby informs everyone on the ship that they will be judged by the Examiner (Sydney Greenstreet) and sent ashore to their respective afterlifes according to his ruling. Will the commuters’ pleas or good behavior save their souls? Who will be sent to heaven, and who will be sent to hell?

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John Garfield and Paul Henried playing chess on the set of Between Two Worlds (1944).

The first thing I noticed about the film was its exceptional score, likely because I learned prior to watching that it was the favorite composition of famed film composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who also composed the scores for such classics as Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and The Constant Nymph (1943). I also caught onto many of the film’s references to another classic Warner Bros. film made two years prior to this one, Casablanca (1942), which also starred the man who is arguably the main actor in this film, Paul Henried. His character Henry Bergner (sounds like Bergman, doesn’t it?) is a Resistance fighter for the French, and discusses the discussion of exit visas for himself and his wife. Both pictures also starred Sydney Greenstreet, who portrays the Examiner in this film. All in all, I found nearly every performance to be excellent, and this film reminded me how much I adored John Garfield’s speaking voice. In 1944 his star power was a force to be reckoned with, but despite that, I do believe giving him top billing in this film was slightly misleading. Paul Henried and Eleanor Parker’s characters are definitely given the most screen time and attention of the cast, especially towards the beginning of the film, and Garfield’s character tends to come in like a dark horse throughout the middle and end of the picture, gluing together subplots and adding some realism when necessary.

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John Garfield in a promotional photo for Between Two Worlds (1944).

I appreciated his performance even more when I learned that Between Two Worlds (1944) appears to be the last film that John Garfield completed prior to the death of his daughter Katherine Hannah Garfield on March 18, 1945 at only six years old from a sudden allergic reaction, and the fact makes it even more chilling that this film dealt so much with death and the afterlife. Usually I dislike films with too many characters and different storylines moving forward at once, and if we’re being honest this film isn’t much of an exception. Nevertheless, I can’t say that the film as a whole is subpar, as I found it to be more of a mixed bag than I anticipated. On one hand, I really applaud Warner Bros. for gathering so many underappreciated supporting actors into one movie, especially the always too overlooked Henried, Parker, and Gwenn. Yet on the other, I think if the screenwriter of Between Two Worlds (1944) decided to nix some of the minor characters and put more focus on the plots of Henry, Ann, and Thomas, we would have seen a much better and more coherent film as a result. Still, despite my own personal misgivings, I would definitely still recommend it to anyone looking for a fantasy-based picture to watch for John Garfield’s birthday.

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