Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, Golden Boy is a romantic melodrama set in the cutthroat world of boxing, starring Adolphe Menjou as manager Tom Moody, Barbara Stanwyck as his girlfriend Lorna, and William Holden as talented young violinist Joe Bonaparte, who decides to become a boxer.
This post is part of the 4th Golden Boy Blogathon: A William Holden Celebration, hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema, The Flapper Dame, and Love Letters to Old Hollywood.
Golden Boy is based on the Clifford Odets play of the same name, which was a huge hit on Broadway, opening on November 4, 1937 at the Belasco Theatre and running for 250 performances. Harry Cohn – the president and production director of Columbia Pictures – paid $100,000 for the screen rights, envisioning Frank Capra as director and Jean Arthur as star. It was not to be, however, as both were busy making Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), and Cohn had to look elsewhere. He chose Mamoulian, who was a talented and reliable director who’d previously worked on films like Queen Christina (1933) with Greta Garbo and The Gay Desperado (1936), produced by Mary Pickford and starring Ida Lupino.
Joe Bonaparte is a man with two passions: music and pugilism. He appears to be equally accomplished at each, and when he isn’t playing his violin he can be found training at one of New York City’s many boxing gyms. It is at a gym that he meets Tom Moody, here to train one of his fighters, who offers him a chance to get into the ring for real. Moody’s girlfriend Lorna is often deployed to convince Joe to advance his boxing career, but she undergoes a change of heart after she falls in love with him, and realises he could permanently destroy his ability to play the violin.
Joe has become embroiled in the seedy underworld of the New York boxing scene. He involves himself with gangster Eddie Fuseli (played by Joseph Calleia) in order to get a title shot at Madison Square Garden, despite Tom and Lorna both urging him not to. Tragedy strikes in the ring when Joe accidentally kills his opponent, breaking his hand in the process. Devastated, he turns his back on boxing forever, leaving with Lorna and the hope that his violin-playing is not lost to him forever.
Barbara Stanwyck had been in pictures for almost twelve years by the time she made Golden Boy. Defying industry norms by refusing to sign a contract with any single studio, she largely avoided being typecast, but her role in Golden Boy is the type Stanwyck excelled at; a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, with a steely exterior but a heart of gold. The film – although ostensibly about Joe’s boxing career – is definitely centred around Lorna, whose gradual thawing is deftly portrayed by Stanwyck.
In contrast to his highly experienced co-star, William Holden was almost brand new in Hollywood. He was 21 years old, and about to embark on a career in film that would last four decades. However, it had somewhat inauspicious beginnings. Cohn had wanted the lead in Golden Boy to be played by Tyrone Power or someone of similar stardom, but anyone he approached who wasn’t already busy with other filming commitments simply wasn’t interested. He saw a screen test of Holden – who at this point had no credited roles or significant acting experience to speak of – and decided to cast him as his lead.
The risk almost didn’t pay off. Understandably, Holden was nervous; he had been catapulted up the Hollywood ladder from novice to star, without actually ever having worked on a film before. His nerves showed in his performance, and it wasn’t long into filming before Cohn lost his patience and wanted him fired. Stanwyck was incredulous. She met with Cohn and insisted that he be kept on, believing deeply in the young actor’s potential. She took it upon herself to coach Holden, running lines with him in her dressing room until she felt like he was giving the kind of performance she thought him capable of.
Holden never forgot the kindness Stanwyck showed him by taking him under her wing, and they developed a lifelong friendship. When the pair were presenting an award at the 1978 Academy Awards, Holden broke from the script to thank her:
It wasn’t going well and I was going to be replaced, but due to this lovely human being, and her interest and understanding, and her professional integrity and encouragement and, above all, her generosity, I’m here tonight.
Stanwyck paid tribute to Holden in her acceptance speech for her honorary Academy Award in 1982, calling him her ‘golden boy’.
The film was released on September 5th, 1939. It was a stellar time for movies – often referred to as Hollywood’s finest year – and Golden Boy was somewhat lost in the crowd. A contemporary review in the New York Times complimented Stanwyck for supplying “just the proper note of cynicism and frankness”, but unfortunately did not have such kind words for Holden:
It has been well played on the whole, although William Holden, the newcomer in the title role, has been guilty, in scattered scenes, of the exaggerated recoils, lip-bitings and hand-clenchings one associates with the old-time melodramatic school.
It is fair to say that Golden Boy does not represent Holden’s finest work; indeed, it seems mildly unfair to expect it to, given that it was his first time in front of a movie camera. But it is undoubtedly fascinating to witness an actor who would later become known for his dramatic prowess seem so unsure of himself, thrust into the limelight before he was quite ready. It’s hard to imagine the fresh-faced young actor, barely out of his teenage years, becoming the grizzled Commander Shears in The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957) – but it was Stanwyck who helped get him there.