Based on Clifford Odets’ powerful stage sensation, Rouben Mamoulian’s Golden Boy (1939) is a high octane melodrama about a boy and his aspirations to make the big time. Just what that means remains up for grabs, especially when the boy happens to be multitalented. The film that catapulted young William Holden to stardom almost didn’t happen. Reportedly, the young actor did not impress his director on his first time out. It didn’t help matters that Odets had based the character of Joe Bonaparte on rising film star John Garfield, whom he hoped would do the film.
Columbia exec’ Harry Cohn had other ideas. He wanted to use the movie as build up for his new star. Even so, Mamoulian seriously contemplated recasting the part of Joe several times – a threat averted when costar Barbara Stanwyck (already an established performer and hot commodity in Hollywood) stepped in with the decree that if Holden was fired she too would refuse to continue in the film. Years later, when Stanwyck was given a life time achievement Oscar, Holden (as its presenter) acknowledged his eternal debt of gratitude to Stanwyck for her blind faith, optimism and guidance throughout the shoot.
Golden Boy’s story picks up with young Joe arriving at the office of fight manager, Tom Moody (Adolph Menjou) to inform him that his prize pugilist has just broken his hand in a practice bout at the local gym. Infuriated, Tom storms off to confront his boxer with girlfriend, Lorna Moon (Stanwyck) and Joe in tow, only to discover that it was Joe who broke the fighter’s fist. Begging for the opportunity to sub in his place, the curmudgeonly Tom eventually gives in to Joe’s relentless persuasion and is rewarded handsomely when Joe wins the fight.
Meanwhile, Joe’s father (Lee J. Cobb) has another surprise in store for his son. Owing to Joe’s musical talent with the violin he has purchased the instrument for his twenty-first birthday. However, when Joe returns home to tell his father that he has chosen boxing over music as his profession the struggle between art and fortune begins. At first Lorna sees Joe as Tom’s latest cash cow – a means to an end. She desperately wants to marry Tom and realizes that Joe’s victories will allow Tom to pay off his wife, get a divorce and marry her.
But quickly another wrinkle begins to tear at Lorna’s heart – her own growing romantic affections for the young buck and her concern for the preservation of his rising fame and general safety. When Tom attempts to rig a fight with local gangster Eddie Fuseli (Joseph Calleia) Lorna must chose between love, sacrifice and profit.
Golden Boy is a film of considerable stealth and sincerity. Everyone is functioning at high capacity. Holden’s awkwardness as an actor is just what the role requires. Stanwyck smolders with sultry allure. Menjou does his embittered cynic routine to perfection. Mamoulian’s direction is smooth and well paced. The results are a melodrama worthy of addition to anyone’s home video library.
At long last, Sony Home Entertainment has seen fit to release this long overdue catalogue title to DVD. The B&W film elements appear to be in fairly good condition. The gray scale is expansive and nicely balanced. Contrast levels are refined. Blacks are black. Whites are relatively clean. A modicum of film grain does not detract from an otherwise smooth visual presentation. Occasionally, age related artifacts intrude – but again, they are NOT distracting. Overall, this is a very pleasing visual presentation. The audio is mono and presented at an adequate listening level. Sony appears to be going the route of Warner Bros. on this title, providing a litany of unrelated – though thoroughly enjoyable – vintage short subjects as supplemental extras. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)