Next Monday, Turner Classic Movies presents a special tribute to the late James Garner, who died yesterday at age 86.
Garner was best known for his TV roles, but he also made quite a few movies, the most notable of which (in my view) is The Great Escape. Unfortunately, TCM won’t be showing that one or Support Your Local Gunfighter, nor the film of Maverick, in which he played an antagonist to Mel Gibson’s lead character. Nor did Murphy’s Romance and Space Cowboys make the cut. Instead, here’s the lineup for the tribute day:
6:00 AM Toward the Unknown
8:00 AM Shoot-out at Medicine Bend
9:30 AM Grand Prix
12:30 PM Cash McCall
2:15 PM The Wheeler Dealers
4:00 PM Darby’s Rangers
6:15 PM Mister Buddwing
8:00 PM The Thrill of it All
10:00 PM The Americanization of Emily
12:00 AM The Children’s Hour
2:00 AM Victor/Victoria
4:30 AM Marlowe
Although the above-mentioned films and a few others Garner starred in are praiseworthy, Garner’s movie output is not particularly impressive. He was more effective as a TV actor, yet even on the small screen his appeal had distinct limits. The eulogies from critics tend to laud Garner for his portrayals of antiheroes, and I am sure that he would have been gratified by that. I don’t think it’s all that great of a compliment: to me, the antihero is one of the many deleterious cultural trends to emerge from the post-World War II era, and its precipitation into a major cultural movement in the late 1960s and ’70s was largely baneful and the product of a nation that was losing its moral compass.
Nonetheless, Garner was very good at this dubious type of characterization−his craggy features and tall, athletic build (he reportedly played basketball and football in high school) contrasted well with his character’s innate cowardice and sneakiness in the excellent 1950s TV series Maverick, and they served him well as the bedraggled private detective Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files.
Garner could play these raffish characters well because of those physical characteristics, but unlike many antiheroes, his Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford had a distinct moral compass. Although Maverick often clearly had ulterior motives for becoming involved in the travails of various attractive females in his wanderings, he clearly sympathized with those who were being exploited by criminals, and he employed the full force of his wiles in making things right. (I preferred Jack Kelly’s characterization of Bret’s brother, Bart Maverick, however.)
Rockford, for his part, was a shabby, low-rent, ex-con private detective who had a soft spot for pretty girls in trouble and stood up to the authorities when his clients or his down-and-out friends needed a champion. Rockford’s disdain for authority was a particularly apposite attitude during an era in which the presidents were Nixon, Ford, and Carter and the Congress was under one-party control. Despite these positive elements, the show was never a big hit in the ratings, but it had a devoted fan following which has lasted many years since it went off the air. (Both Maverick and The Rockford Files were created and produced by Roy Huggins, whose distinctively raffish view of society and morality fit well with the moral confusion of the second half of the twentieth century in the United States. He was a talented writer who created several likable TV series characters and could plot a very solid story.)
Garner’s antiheroes retain their appeal because they were ultimately good at heart and didn’t take themselves too seriously. That lack of seriousness limited the amount of moral or psychological insight one could gain from his characters and the stories in which they were presented, but when Maverick and Rockford were at their best, there was much entertainment to be found. For that, his many fans remember him fondly.
Good question, Larry. It’s interesting to think about, because there are such disparate trends involved. All these characters are essential anti-authoritarian in their attitudes, but they have much different reasons for being so. Hammett’s Continental Op is a cynical, mercenary individual, but he does have a distinct moral code. Ultimately, he is strongly professional and pragmatic, and he is essentially inner-directed. His society, the 1920s and early ’30s United States, had strong elements of corruption to it, which defines the atmosphere of the Op stories.
Chandler’s Marlowe affects to appear cynical on the surface but is highly idealistic at heart, very much the opposite of the Op in that way. MacDonald’s Lew Archer is likewise idealistic, with a strong social conscience, and he does not try to hide it from the reader. One can see a progression from Op to Marlow to Archer.
In some ways, Rockford furthers the progression: he is idealistic and anti-authoritarian, and his refusal to bend to authority also takes the form of an opting out of bourgeois values and society’s definitions of success. One could suggest that he is something of a Christian ideal in that way (though neither Garner nor producer Roy Huggins seems to have been particularly religious). Perhaps that helps explain the great fondness many people feel for the character.
Nice piece Sam, and nice comment Lars. Especially good to see Sam’s views on Garner compared with Drew Klavan’s.. Drew’s focus on Garner’s most famous role as a private (in contrast to public) investigator also inspired this thought and question to Sam…
How do you think the late 60s/early 70s anti-hero compares to the film noir anti-heroes of the preceding generation? More precisely, what’s your take on Jim Rockford vis-a-vis the PIs of Chandler and Hammett, and Ross Macdonald’s almost contemporaneous Lew Archer? The latter may even be a kind of missing link between the shadows, fog and fedoras of Chandler’s LA to Rockford’s 1970s, laid-back beach bum persona. I know it’s a big question, but I’d be interested in any immediate thoughts you may have and the implications for America’s evolving, post-war culture.
These are good and interesting thoughts, Lars. Thanks for sending this. I know that Drew Klavan and I agree on what has been the major historical arc of the culture since World War II, and he’s right about today’s heroes being largely government flunkies, about which I’ve commented in the past myself, rather extensively. As to the actors we’ve discussed, I think a greater seriousness is what sets Wayne, Eastwood, Brando, Pacino and other big film stars apart from TV stars such as Garner, Janssen, and McGavin, much as I enjoy the work of those TV actors. As to whether the antihero was a good thing, Drew is of course right to point out that there were some appealing ones with a strong moral core (as I noted in my article), and that these were a reaction to the increasingly bureaucratized and unfree society that was being built during the past half-century. However, as suggested in my post, I would rather live in a society that lacks both moral confusion and cultural antiheroes than one that has both.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Garner since the weekend, and especially the Rockford Files, which I consider perhaps the best American network detective show ever done. The characters were brilliant, the acting superior, and the scripts kept their quality up through a long run, almost to the end.
Interestingly, Andrew Klavan considered Garner’s career on his own blog today, and came to almost exactly the opposite conclusion from yours: http://pjmedia.com/andrewklavan/2014/07/21/farewell-the-maverick/
My own take is that Rockford was important as a believable hero. I’ve read reviews where Rockford was called “pusillanimous,” but he wasn’t a coward. He just wasn’t like the standard TV hero, who seemed to know no fear. Jim could handle himself in a fight, and often did, but he was well aware he wasn’t invulnerable (you could sometimes detect the limp that came from Garner’s genuine bad knees). Like any decent guy, he avoided a fight when he could, and ran away if he got the chance, because it’s usually not worth it to get physical with another guy. But when it came down to a moral choice, he was there and ready to take the risk and do what was necessary.
Another important element was the relationships. He clearly loved his dad, Rocky, and that love was returned. But they also joshed and nagged each other, and loved to cheat each other in small ways. And then there was Angel, Jim’s ex-con buddy, who had no redeeming qualities whatever and would sell Jim out in a second if the price was right or the threat was plausible. Still, Jim’s loyalty never wavered. We loved him for that grace.
All in all, I’m not sure I want to live in an America without James Garner. We already take ourselves too seriously.
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