Clifford Odets was one of the most celebrated playwrights of the 1930s, and his work for the stage during that period and screenwriting in the '40s yielded some of the more interesting movies of either decade. Born in Philadelphia to immigrant parents, Odets' family was impoverished during his early years, although his father eventually succeeded with a Bronx printing company in New York. The boy was much closer to his aunt and uncle, from whom he absorbed not only a good deal of Jewish culture but also skepticism about the nature of the success that his father was pursuing. And by the time he had reached his teens, he was alienated from both his parents and sisters, all of whom, it seemed to the boy, equated success and happiness with materialistic pursuits.
Considered a failure by his father after he dropped out of high school, Odets plunged into literature, beginning with his favorite book, Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. He also took up elocution, a favorite subject, and eventually became a performer on the Moss Vaudeville Circuit, earning a meager living reciting on-stage. Moving toward legitimate theater, Odets made his way through the network of tiny acting companies in New York, and eventually had a brief acting tenure with the Theatre Guild, the city's most celebrated mainstream company, although his main benefit seems to have been acquiring a thorough knowledge of theater production. In 1931, Odets co-founded a more radical offshoot of that organization: the Group Theatre, which was organized along egalitarian lines, almost in a socialistic or communistic manner. It was with this group that Odets shot to fame with a series of plays that he wrote during the early and mid-'30s. Its mission to find relevant and meaningful subjects for their productions made it the ideal creative home for the young writer, and, in 1935, he delivered a short play entitled Waiting for Lefty. Set against the background of a New York taxicab strike, it was a hit and won him his first significant award. This was a new brand of working-class theater, far removed from the upscale subject matter to which most established productions were devoted; the work spoke in the language of the common man, and it took critics and audiences by storm. Ironically, because it was a short work and he needed to fill a full evening's program, Odets had written another short play on the same bill: Till the Day I Die, which dealt with life in Nazi Germany. In one night, then, he went from near-obscurity to a Broadway sensation.
Odets went on to write other hits, including Awake and Sing!, which dealt with the consequences of the poverty of for one Jewish family in The Bronx during the Great Depression; Paradise Lost (his personal favorite), about an upper middle class Jewish family injured by the Depression; and Golden Boy, about a young man (portrayed by John Garfield in the original production) who must choose between a fulfilling, but financially unrewarding, career as a violinist or a potentially money-making one as a boxer. Golden Boy was so successful that it was bought by Columbia Pictures, which brought it to the screen as a vehicle for a young actor named William Holden. The play, itself, was a reflection of the choice that Odets felt he was being forced to make at the time; his earlier writing had elicited offers from Hollywood, but, at the time, he looked askance at the huge sums being offered for his talent. He was forced to accept, however, when the Group Theatre ran into serious financial trouble. To help bail them out Odets contributed to the screenplay of (and appeared in) The General Died at Dawn, which starred Gary Cooper.
He turned to directing with the Cary Grant vehicle None but the Lonely Heart (1944), which was one of the actor's finest dramatic films and best performances. In 1946, he collaborated with his Group Theatre colleague Harold Clurman in the latter's only directorial effort, the fascinating film noir Deadline at Dawn, starring Bill Williams, Susan Hayward, and Paul Lukas. It was also during this period that Odets' writing seemed to lose its edge and his stage work foundered. Following the Group Theatre's final production, Clash By Night, none of his plays had the old fury, passion, and piercing sensibilities. The Big Knife (1949) was a failure on-stage, although it made into a fascinating movie about the movies by Robert Aldrich in 1955, and reflected his own disillusionment with Hollywood and its allure. Odets was more successful with The Country Girl (1950), a play dealing with alcoholism that was made into a film four years later with Holden, Bing Crosby, and Grace Kelly.
The '50s also saw Odets' early politics catch up with him when he was called to testify before a Congressional committee investigating Communists in the entertainment industry. Although hardly a friendly witness, he did admit to brief membership in the party and named several of his friends and associates from the '30s. Odets seemed to regain his edge with the screenplay for Alexander MacKendrick's The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), but by then the damage had been done to his psyche. By the start of the '60s, Odets had descended even lower (in his view) when he signed a contract to write four screenplays for the television anthology series The Richard Boone Show, although, ironically, it was regarded as one of the finest dramatic television shows of the day.
While collaborating on a musical version of Golden Boy (which finally made it to Broadway in 1964), Odets died of cancer in 1963, having delivered only three of the four Richard Boone scripts. His plays remained in print in the ensuing years and continued to be performed on-stage, especially in college and regional productions. Some of them were revived for public television during the 1970s and '80s, and the best of his screenplays and film adaptations of his work -- including Deadline at Dawn -- were still shown periodically in various repertory screenings. Odets' early years in Hollywood were also the basis for the Coen Brothers' 1991 film Barton Fink.