Golden Boy (1939) dir. Rouben Mamoulian
Starring: William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Lee J. Cobb, Adolphe Menjou
By Alan Bacchus
The year 1939, supposedly Hollywood’s greatest year, produced William Holden’s first film. It's a well written and well crafted film about a boxer who wrestles between a love for fighting and a talent for playing the violin. The strength of the film is its screenplay by the legendary writer Clifford Odets, who adapts the film from his own play. Aside from dated politically incorrectness, the film manages to avoid most clichés and exists beyond the ‘boxing film’ genre.
William Holden, the gruff maschismo-man we know from his later roles, is almost unrecognizable as a young and rebellious 21-year-old. He plays Joe Bonaparte, who has a talent for playing the violin but chooses a life of down and dirty boxing to make a living. He’s managed by Tom Moody (the great character actor Adolphe Paths of Glory Menjou) and his smart and sexy assistant, Lorna Moon (a luminous Barbara Stanwyck). Joe is tempted to the dark side by a local gangster, which further alienates him from his disapproving father and eventually from Lorna, his girlfriend-in-waiting.
Stanwyck, as usual, is super sexy as Lorna, and the boxing subplots are typical and adequate fare for the genre. The reason to watch the film is the relationship between Joe (William Holden) and his father, played by Lee J. Cobb. Behind the atrocious fake moustache, fake eyebrows and Italian accent, Mr. Bonaparte is a realistic character we can all relate to. He’s an immigrant who struggles hard to put food on the table for his family. He cherishes his son’s blessed artistic gift of music, which dignifies his working class lifestyle. But when Joe’s interest turns to the violent and dirty sport of boxing Bonaparte fears his son’s life will revert to the inner city immigrant lifestyle into which most other of his kind are stereotyped.
You can’t fault Bonaparte for wanting a peaceful and respectable life for his son. This is a familiar conflict in cinema, but Odets chooses an unfamiliar conundrum for the Bonapartes. Odets could have given Joe a scholastic talent, which would have been a clearer point of conflict between the father and son – i.e., being a successful lawyer vs. fighter. But a conflict between art and violence is a far more complex decision because Joe’s decision is not driven by money.
Unfortunately, what we never get a clear sense of is where Bonaparte develops the need to beat down people for adulation. If his talent is that good, he can certainly achieve fame from playing the violin. So is there a deep-rooted carnality to the sport that attracts Joe to boxing? Perhaps it’s the violence in his home that causes him to transfers his aggression to the ring. If so, it’s in the sub-sub-subtext. There’s a scene when Joe’s brother-in-law, Siggie, hits his wife on the head during an argument. The father Bonaparte is in the room and scolds Siggie saying, “Please, you shouldn’t hit your wife in public. Do it in private!”. Unfortunately, I don’t think this was subtext but rather behaviour that was acceptable in its day. It’s a shame Odets never clarified the root of Joe’s inner conflict.
The other highlight of the film is the final fight scene. For a boxing film, not seeing a fight until the end was curious, but director Mamoulian makes up for it with a thrilling and well staged main event. The scene must have cost a fortune to shoot - it begins with the entrance of the boxers into the ring. Mamoulian doesn’t trick us with cheating close-ups; he fills all the seats in the arena with real live bodies. The lighting and framing by legendary lensman Karl Freud in collaboration with Nicholas Musuraca brings to mind the contrasting look of Scorsese’s fight scenes in Raging Bull. I suspect this film was a major influence on Scorsese’s film.
William Holden had a long 40-year career – roughly book-ended by two great films – Golden Boy and Network. In between he gave us many great films, including Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Wild Bunch. Golden Boy is a quality jumpstart to his career. Enjoy.