The Garner Files

I’ve admired James Garner’s work for many years but after reading his autobiography, The Garner Files, my admiration of and respect for him have grown tremendously. He is truly a “good man”: a man of integrity, values, loyalty, and talent.

As Garner describes in his autobiography, he and his fans are lucky that a woman pulled out of a parking space just as he spontaneously decided to drive into his future agent’s lot. If she hadn’t, then he wouldn’t have stopped, and he might never have become an actor. Imagine how much less the world would be without James Garner’s talent!

Growing up in Norman, Oklahoma during the Depression, James Garner had a difficult childhood – more because of an abusive stepmother who beat Jim and his two other brothers regularly and savagely than due to poverty. Garner saw combat action with the Army’s 24th Infantry Division during the Korean War and his stories from this time are both harrowing and humorous. He credits the military with helping him find purpose in life and it was there that he earned his G.E.D.  After the war, Jim returned to his rambling ways, moving from one job to the next and not finding anything of particular interest. He stumbled into acting and only became serious about it when he married his soul mate, Lois, and he’s been married to her for 56 years.

The Garner Files is an outstanding book that is filled with insight, humor, and wisdom. I read the book and then liked it so much that I listened to the audio book. Michael Kramer does an outstanding job narrating the audio version – he completely understands the tone and nuances of Garner’s writing and speech. The book shines in both formats. It illuminates a difficult life but one in which James Garner took chances, embraced life, cherished his family and friends, studied his craft, and stood his ground to fight for values, and, happily, won along the way. From comments like, “I’m not a fan of me” in response to why he doesn’t watch himself on the screen, to his landmark lawsuit against Warner Brothers that paved the way to breaking the contract system for actors, The Garner Files will keep you turning the page and listening to the discs. On both the big screen and the little screen, I remain a faithful fan of James Garner.

Be sure to check out The Garner Files either in print or audio, and then watch Garner in action in these DVDs available at OWL:

The Rockford Files. The two roles most closely identified with James Garner are Bret Maverick and James Rockford. I absolutely love The Rockford Files. Critics and fans agree that the series never “jumped the shark” meaning every episode is true to the characters and superb in its writing and craftsmanship. Rockford breaks the traditional mold of TV detectives, and I would venture to say TV characters, period. I can’t think of another popular series where the star lives in a trailer and is still viewed as intelligent, resourceful, and masculine. James Rockford isn’t a sell-out. For fans, Garner’s autobiography talks a great deal about both the Maverick and Rockford series.

The Great Escape (1963), based on the book by Paul Brickhill, tells the true story of the men imprisoned in the Nazi maximum-security Stalag Luft North in 1943. Designed to hold the top escape-artist aviators captured during the war, it tells the story of their plan for another great escape. The motorcycle scenes with Steve McQueen remain a highlight for all who watch although this is one of the few parts of the film that did not happen in real life.   In The Garner Files, James Garner gives us a glimpse into the making of the film, the actors involved, and the reactions (all good) from those who survived Stalag Luft North.

The Thrill of It All (1963) and Move Over, Darling (1963) are the two films that Garner did with co-star Doris Day. They have a natural connection on the screen and their enduring affection shines through in each scene. In The Thrill of It All, homemaker Doris Day suddenly finds herself a celebrity who out-earns (by far) her doctor-husband when she is reluctantly selected to be the Happy Soap spokeswoman.  It’s full of my kind of humor. In one scene, the son answers the phone and responds to the caller by shaking his head rather than verbalizing an answer. In another, James Garner drives the family convertible into a swimming pool that unbeknownst to him was installed by Happy Soap only hours before.  In Move Over Darling, a film that was originally to star Dean Martin and Marilyn Monroe before Monroe’s untimely death, Garner has his wife declared legally dead after she was lost at sea and presumed dead after a plane crash. Of course, on the day that he marries another woman, Doris finally returns to civilization. The premise is a tragic one but in the capable hands of Garner and Day, you’ll be laughing all the way to their new wedding day.

Grand Prix (1966). This landmark racing film follows Formula 1 drivers during a run for the championship at the Monaco Grand Prix. Director John Frankenheimer’s meticulous attention to detail and historical accuracy make this a film for the ages. Racing has gotten much safer today, but safety standards were minimal through the 1960s. You’ll see the running starts, stunning high-speed footage, the race suits that hardly protect against fire, and the horrendous crashes. The work captures the intoxicating energy of racing and was originally filmed in Cinerama, a cinematography system that used 70mm film and three projectors in the theater to create a wrap-around effect for visuals and sound. The movie was shot across the 1966 Grand Prix season at various tracks on the circuit. The Garner Files includes a section that covers this film and Jim Garner’s long amateur career in auto racing as driver and owner that included the Baja 500 and Le Mans.

I have to agree with Jim that Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) is one of the funniest western spoofs ever made. From the first scene to the last, you’ll be laughing out loud at every turn. Garner stars as a self-assured rambling cowboy on his way to finding gold in Australia who strolls into town and becomes the local sheriff. He soon arrests one of the local hoodlums only to discover that they ran out of money before the jail was finished. It’s a fun and happy film.

Murphy’s Romance (1988) stars James Garner as a widowed druggist in a small town who befriends and falls in love with a recently divorced woman, played by Sally Fields, who moves into town to start again. It’s a sweet and charming romance that moves gently and tugs deeply at your heart.

Barbarians at the Gate (2001). In this HBO original comedy, James Garner plays the CEO of RJR Nabisco who tries, and fails, to sell a smokeless cigarette to the public. He then decides that he has had enough with the stockholders and plans to buy out the company. Before he succeeds, he finds himself in a battle with the “takeover king” Henry Kravis, played by Jonathan Pryce. As reviewer Tom Keogh wrote, “The ensuing battle is both bitterly funny and full of acid-tinged insights into the ’80s greed that changed corporate America forever.”

Space Cowboys (2001). A Russian satellite with nuclear weapons aboard malfunctions and is in danger of hitting the Earth.The only people who know how to repair the outdated technology are, of course, long-retired guys. Space Cowboys merges science fiction and laughs, and Clint Eastwood and his stellar cast of teammates that includes James Garner, Donald Sutherland, and Tommy Lee Jones. It is an equally heart-warming and heroic film.

~ Ann Marie

Ann Marie is the Library Director at the Oliver Wolcott Library

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