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.