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.