Golden Boy (1939)

This post is an entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association’s “Classic Movies of 1939” Blogathon, organized by Becky of ClassicBecky’s Brain Food and Page of My Love of Old Hollywood. To see entries from other members, visit the CMBA blog.

Indulge a flight of fancy for a moment, but I sometimes wonder if, on a far-distant day, some strange-to-us alien culture will descend upon the earth and attempt to foster understanding of our own, using the fruits of our pop culture output—films, television shows, novels, music, fashion—to gain some insight into human nature. And it always occurs to me that, judging by some of the more popular film genres (particularly today), these hypothetical future aliens are likely to conclude that human beings (or at least a significant facet of them) are a rather bloodthirsty race. Just look at our collective love for violent entertainment—slasher flicks, mixed-martial arts, death metal, the WWE, Donald Trump (oh, wait … he just makes me violently ill)—and it’s easy to see how such conclusions could potentially be drawn.

Take, for instance, the enduring popularity of boxing. Pugilism, as a sport, has its roots in ancient Greece, and has been a draw for audiences for centuries. For some people, there is no greater thrill than to stand in a crowd of equally avid enthusiasts and watch two people wale on each other for minutes at a time. And as early as 1894, real-time boxing matches were being recorded on film so that people who could not be there in person would not miss any of the action.

Hollywood soon followed these early documentary-type short subjects with a series of scripted boxing-themed movies that fall into a variety of genres. In 1926, Buster Keaton starred in the silent film Battling Butler, lending a comedic air to the normally serious sport. 1931’s The Champ, starring Wallace Beery and child star Jackie Cooper, melodramatically depicts the life of a washed-up boxer and his relationship with his young son. The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933), starring Myrna Loy, even puts a romantic spin on the pugilistic world. The success of these films and others with ringside themes indicate that films centered around men punching one another had (and continue to have) a built-in audience.

1939 brought along yet another entry into the boxing film pantheon: Golden Boy, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, Lee J. Cobb, and a young, unknown actor named William Holden.

Holden stars as Joe Bonaparte, an Italian-American violin virtuoso who longs to be a professional boxer. His father (Cobb) tries to encourage Joe to continue with his music, even buying his son an expensive violin to further develop his talent. Still, Joe is drawn by the chance to earn hundreds of dollars in the ring, and he solicits training from reluctant fight manager Tom Moody (Menjou). When Joe begins contemplating a return to his musical roots, Moody convinces his girlfriend, Lorna Moon (Stanwyck), to seduce Joe in order to keep him happy and fighting. Lorna and Joe soon fall in love, but a part of her is still bound to Moody, much to Joe’s dismay. In the meantime, a dapper gangster, Eddie Fuseli (Joseph Calleia), buys into Joe’s contract with Moody and exerts pressure on his increasingly cocky “Golden Boy” to keep fighting and winning, despite Joe’s dawning disillusionment with boxing. A subsequent tragedy in the ring forces Joe to rethink his priorities and decide what he really wants out of his life.

The movie is based on a play by Clifford Odets, who by most accounts was thoroughly disgusted by the changes forced on the film adaptation by the Production Code and at the behest of the studio. Odets, who had a complicated history with Hollywood, refused to work on the screenplay and was highly derisive toward the end result. Among several alterations to the original material, the biggest change involved the dramatic, depressing ending of the play, in which a despairing Joe and Lorna decide to run away from their problems and start life anew together, only to die in a horrific car crash. This ending, however, was changed completely to accommodate a false note of happily-ever-after … or, at the very least, to give the indication of a psychological healing that is simply too rote to be believable.

Incidentally, Holden would go on to play a role in another film adaptation of an Odets work, the 1954 movie version of the play The Country Girl (which netted co-star Grace Kelly an Oscar for Best Actress).

Though Golden Boy is not among the most well-known films released in the banner year of 1939—and, admittedly, not one of the better films in the respective repertoires of its stars—it nonetheless marked one of the most important collaborations in the careers of Stanwyck and Holden. Making this movie cemented a lifelong friendship between the pair, born out of mutual respect and Holden’s undying gratitude for Stanwyck’s support during filming. When Holden, nervous about his first major movie role, was floundering and in danger of being fired by Columbia head Harry Cohn, Stanwyck exercised her star power and stood up for the young actor, ensuring that he remained in the film.

Holden never forgot Stanwyck’s ardent defense of him. In 1978, nearly forty years after making Golden Boy, Holden and Stanwyck presented an award at the Oscars, and Holden took the opportunity to go off-script and publicly thank Stanwyck for enabling his career. And four years later, when Stanwyck was presented with an honorary Oscar for a lifetime of film success, she returned the favor, tearfully thanking her “golden boy,” who had sadly passed away in 1981.

Regrettably (at least, in the context of this movie), the friendship between Stanwyck and Holden did not translate to particularly strong on-screen chemistry between the two, and Holden’s inexperience shows in a performance that ultimately comes across as rather ill at ease. As Joe, Holden tends to over-enunciate and gesticulate so broadly that one wonders if he thought he was performing on stage in front of a packed house as opposed to being filmed. It’s a far cry from his dynamic, career-making performance as a more cynical Joe a decade later in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). And on a personal note, I much prefer Holden with some mileage on him—he becomes infinitely more interesting with lines on his face and experience under his belt, and I’d argue that he’s sexier in his thirties than he was as Golden Boy’s baby-faced lad barely out of his teens.

Stanwyck, embodying the part of yet another tough-as-nails broad with a heart of gold, unsurprisingly shines brightest in the picture. She, not Holden, is the center of the movie, the element that ultimately binds the film into a cohesive whole. Still, the supporting players do the best they can with a somewhat limiting script. Menjou portrays Moody with an underlying sense of resignation that befits his beat-down character. Calleia, in one of his typical gangster/heavy roles, looms with appropriate menace in the background, a touch of sleaze in his oily words. And while Cobb plays the role of loving, overprotective parent pretty well, in the process he dons an unfortunate, highly stereotypical Italian accent—think Luigi from The Simpsons, less authentic than obviously exaggerated.

Speaking of stereotype … who thought it would be a good idea to name Joe’s African-American opponent the “Chocolate Drop?” Ay yi yi.

Though the film tips all too often into maudlin territory, its depiction of Joe’s final fight with the “Chocolate Drop” (James “Cannonball” Green) is easily the greatest scene in the movie, and the one that ultimately makes it a memorable, if not particularly noteworthy, entry in the ’39 canon. Though the movie revolves around the world of boxing, the audience is not witness to an actual match until the end. And what a fight it is, on more than one level. We not only see the two pugilists going after one another with everything they have, but we also see the members of the arena’s audience, whose avid faces and screams for blood mirror those of the film’s audience, who are just as eagerly watching the carnage unfold in front of them. It’s a disconcertingly “meta” moment, revealing some of the baser nature of humanity. As New York Times movie critic Frank S. Nugent wrote in his review of the film upon its release:

“The fight scene, which Broadway knew only as an off-stage noise and something the players talked over afterward, is a savagely eloquent piece of cinematic social comment. In that brief sequence, possibly no more than one-hundredth of his film, [director] Rouben Mamoulian has used his camera as a scalpel to dissect a Madison Square Garden fight crowd. All any one needs to know about a fight arena is there, on the screen: the mugs, the gamblers, the fashionable set, the race groups, the sadists, the broken-down stumble-bums rolling their heads with the punches. Mr. Odets was writing about a fighter, but he couldn’t have written, in a dozen plays, the things that the camera has told in this single scene.”

Indeed, this scene—and its emotional aftermath, as Joe discovers that his actions in the ring have inadvertently resulted in his opponent’s death—is wrenchingly effective. The brutal ballet in the ring, and Joe’s initial self-satisfaction in securing the win, gives way to utter despair in the locker room. Though he’s told by an investigator, “Your hands are clean,” Joe feels they are anything but. He may not be held legally liable for what has happened, but he will hold himself accountable regardless. He enters the room where the Chocolate Drop’s family mourns his passing, intruding on their grief while looking for answers, for redemption, for anything to help alleviate the burden on his soul. It’s an utterly heartbreaking moment, one that elevates the film above the morass of melodrama, at least for a few minutes.

I don’t imagine that many critics consider Golden Boy to be a pinnacle of the “boxing film.” That honor is generally awarded to Raging Bull (1980) or Rocky (1976), both of which have garnered places on the AFI’s “100 Years … 100 Movies” list (the former at #4, the latter at #57). And many modern boxing movies, such as Million Dollar Baby (2004), Cinderella Man (2005), or last year’s The Fighter, are slightly more adept at portraying the private lives and inner conflicts of those who step into the ring while simultaneously satisfying those moviegoers who’ve come looking for a few fights. Still, despite its flaws, Golden Boy is an entertaining look at the ways in which the desire for money and material success can bring you low … and the ways in which love—not only romantic love, but parental, too—can bring you back.

24 thoughts on “Golden Boy (1939)

  1. I remember reading about the history of Golden Boy as a play. Odets actually wrote the play for John Garfield, but because of Group Theater politics and hierarchies, Garfield was stuck playing the cab driver and was very bitter about it. It’s a pity he didn’t play it on film since it probably would have fit him much more smoothly than the very green Holden.

    Great, detailed review.

    • Thank you! I agree—John Garfield could have done so much more with the part of Joe than Holden, whose inexperience is so painfully obvious. At least the loss of the “Golden Boy” role didn’t ultimately hold Garfield back from finding his own niche in Hollywood (that would have been a damn shame, considering his immense talent).

  2. I knew you’d be writing about this film, and since I had the DVD in the “to watch” pile, I watched it this weekend.

    I think your review was pretty spot-on. I found the crowd scenes fascinating to watch, a pre-cursor to similar scenes in Robert Wise’s “The Set Up” ten years later.

    Holden was a little green, but that’s to be expected in his first movie. Stanwyck is as great as always.

    I’m glad you mentioned the Oscar show when Holden publicly thanked Stanwyck for her support when they were shooting “Golden Boy.” I remember watching that live. It really is one of the great moments in Oscar history.

    • Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you got the chance to see the film. Regardless of my personal dislike for Holden’s performance, it’s still an entertaining film, especially since Stanwyck is there to shore up the weaker points. The Holden-Stanwyck moment at the Oscars is on YouTube (as is her acceptance speech for the honorary Oscar), and viewing them while I was writing this post brought a tear to my eye. There was such genuine love and respect between them—it seems like a rare commodity in “modern” Hollywood!

  3. I haven’t seen this film, but I agree w/the point you make about Holden getting better as he got older; I’ve seen him in some of his 1940s movies, but he really doesn’t hit his stride until the 1950s. I also love Stanwyck and try to see everything she’s in, so I will definitely check out this movie. Thanks for your terrific and insightful post.

    • And thank you for commenting! Holden’s career, for me, really started when he hooked up with Billy Wilder, who had a honest-to-God gift for drawing effective performances out of his actors. I hope you get the chance to see this movie!

  4. I was originally going to write about this film for the blogathon but begged off, maybe not quite begged, Page if I could change to THE CAT AND THE CANARY which I did. The reason being is pretty much what you have written in your review. I watched the film again, after many years, for the review I would write and found out my fond memories were not so fond. The more I wrote, the more I disliked the film especially offended by Lee J. Cobb’s over the top performance as the Italian father. You have outlined just about every other thing I came up with, Holden’s inexperience, the change in focus making Stanwyck’s character more prominent. Really nice job and I enjoyed your introductory background paragraph.

    • Thanks, John! As someone who is part Italian (and proud of it!), Cobb’s performance, particularly the accent, really bugged me. Ethnic stereotypes as a whole abound throughout the movie, so it can be disturbing to watch, at times, from a modern perspective.

      And let me add that I’m glad you “begged off” so I could write about this movie, because even for all its foibles, it was still nice to revisit it for this post!

  5. I agree that it’s not one of the great boxing films (like the aforementioned THE SET UP) and I concur that the more mature Holden was a better actor. Still, one has to put it in perspective: it made a star of Holden, a good actor who appeared in some excellent films over three decades. Odets’ ending sounds much more interesting, but I can understand why it was changed. This wasa strong, well-done review that enlightened on several aspects of a film I’ve seen a couple of times.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Rick! I thought while I was writing this review that I was perhaps being a bit too harsh in regards to Holden’s performance, but in the end, I had to acknowledge that his obvious inexperience is so distracting that it really colors my viewing of the film. Post-1950 Holden is one of my favorite actors, but much of his early work prior to Sunset Blvd. is almost unwatchable (at least, to me). Stanwyck is the one element that makes Golden Boy work, and indeed, Holden seems much more comfortable in his scenes with her than with any of his other costars.

  6. Although I’ve seen this film because I’m a big Stanwyck and Holden fan I don’t care for boxing films in general. Other than Raging Bull and most recently The Fighter I haven’t seen the majority of the more recent ones.
    I agree that Holden wasn’t at his best but it’s always fun to see great actors in films when they were starting out.

    This was a very interesting review.

    • Thanks, Page. Boxing films in general lack a lot of appeal for me—I can think of better ways to spend my time than to watch people beating the ever-loving snot out of one another. I saw The Fighter earlier this year and was flinching my way through most of the fight scenes, but I really enjoyed the more character-driven elements of the movie. It’s strange (to me, anyway) that it works kind of the opposite in Golden Boy, where the fight scene is the pivotal moment in the movie and the “quiet” moments between the characters are some of the weaker scenes.

  7. Brandie, a very nicely written post that maintains your high standard of writing. (I haven’t seen this movie.) John Garfield might not have got this part, but he did get the lead in “Body and Soul” a few years later, for me his greatest performance and my favorite movie of the boxing genre (a genre I’m no particular fan of). Your description of the audience also reminded me of Robert Wise’s “The Set-Up.” Your post makes it seem that a weakness of this movie is that it too often crosses the line between genre conventions and cliche, a fine line indeed. Lee J. Cobb usually comes on far too strong for my taste–more of an exaggerated stage-acting style than a restrained film-acting style. An interesting trivia note: The ill-fated Frances Farmer starred in the Broadway version. When I saw the A&E “Biography” episode on William Holden, they showed a pre-filming publicity still of Holden, and there was a small plaque in front of him that had this film’s title, his name, Adolphe Menjou’s, and Frances Farmer’s. My inference: Farmer was supposed to star in the movie version but for some reason was replaced with Stanwyck.

    • Thanks, R.D.! Farmer may very well have been originally cast in the Stanwyck role. She was having an affair with Odets at the time, which likely contributed to her casting in the film version, but Farmer was such a mess that I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d been forced to drop out of the project.

  8. Brandie, I forgot to mention that I fully agree with you about Holden not hitting his stride until “Sunset Blvd.” I’ve recently seen a few of his performances from the forties, and he seems callow and superficial, not much more than a pretty boy with modest talent. I don’t know what happened, but in “Sunset Blvd.” he suddenly hit the ground running.

    • I don’t know, but for some reason I picture Billy Wilder wielding a cat o’ nine tails and screaming, “Emote, damn you!” from behind the camera as Holden walks into a scene. 😉

      Like I said before, I really think it has a lot to do with Wilder as a director—he just had a way of bringing out the best in (most of) his actors!

  9. I totally agree with Rachel — John Garfield was born for the role of Golden Boy, and the movie would have had a depth and reality to it that Holden’s performance just didn’t give. Odets was understandably angry at the changes made, which also weakened the story on film. The fight scene with Chocolate Drop was the best part of the movie, just as well done as you describe.

    Raging Bull and Rocky were wonderful movies, but to me the No. 1 movie in the boxer genre was “Requiem for a Heavyweight”, written by Rod Serling and starring Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney. It truly brought to unglamorous life the bloodthirsty crowds and sad fate awaiting boxers who can no longer fight.

    Wonderful review, Brandie!

    • Thank you very much, Becky! I have never seen Requiem, but I’ve heard it’s an amazing movie. I’ll definitely need to check it out.

  10. Great review. Not sure what else to add to what everyone has said. I do know that when “Sunset Blvd.” came along, Holden knew it was his chance after 10 years of his career not really taking off. He was inexperienced in “Golden Boy,” but I’m thankful for it because it eventually led to those great years in the 1950s when he hit his stride. And, as always, it’s great to see Stanwyck. I do love her.

    • Thanks for the comment! You’re right–there is something to be said for early films like this one that at least gave Holden some on-screen experience. And if anything, it gave him an awesome, lifelong ally in Stanwyck, who was, by most accounts, one of the most generous and caring actresses to ever step foot in Hollywood.

  11. Right– you always bring your A game, but on this you brought your A+ game! Can I just say that Blogathons like this, for me, are the proof in the pudding that the classic film bloggers have amongst their ranks, really, some of the most wonderfully talented, wildly versatile writers in the blogosphere.(your previous post is on Aladdin! AWESOME!) Top-notch post on a top-notch film.

    (Confession: I once signed up for a class at Pasadena City College ONLY because Bill Holden once went there. Scary, but true… 😉

    • Thank you, ma’am! I appreciate your kind comments. This is the second CMBA blogathon I’ve participated in, and I’m always impressed by the quality of the writing and analysis demonstrated by everyone.

      Are you a CMBA member? You should be!

      And I totally don’t blame you on the Holden thing—when I lived in Iowa, one of my goals (that I sadly never met) was to drive over to Davenport to visit the hospital where Cary Grant died. So in our ways, we’re ALL of us weirdos. 🙂

  12. Brandie, I want to begin by saying how sorry I am to have taken so long to comment on your excellent review. I also wanted to thank you for taking the time to visit and comment on my review of Intermezzo. I have been aware of Golden Boy for many years, but I have never taken the time to watch the film. I am not, as a rule, a big fan of boxing films, although I did see Cinderella Man (2005) and The Patent Leather Kid (1927) with Richard Barthelmess is an excellent film with a focus on WWI and less about boxing. I find it intriguing (since I wrote on Intermezzo) the different films that include classical music and musicians as a subplot with such varying degrees of success. John Garfield in Humoresque reveals he could have played the title role in Golden Boy, a role that would have been a much better fit for him and in which he could have (almost certainly) made a much better film. I must say the back story to this film has always intrigued me, confirming my opinion of Barbara Stanwyck as a gracious lady of integrity. Your entertaining and informative review has answered questions I have had about the story and William Holden’s role, but I think I might watch the film simply to see the beginning of a life long friendship between Barbara and William.

    • Thanks for stopping by, whistlingypsy! There’s no need to apologize—I still have a few sites left to hit myself (it’s a lot of entries to read!). I’m glad you commented on the presence of classical music in the plot—it doesn’t seem to belong in the low-brow boxing world, but the contrasts between Joe’s two spheres of existence is one of the more interesting details of the film.

      And I agree with your assessment of Stanwyck. From everything I’ve read about her over the years, it seems she was one of the most genuine actresses working in that era, always managing to endear herself to every member of the crew on her many films. A grand dame, on and off screen.

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