- Rated NR
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Bob Westal
When male movie buffs gather, they sometimes complain that most of today’s male leads are more boys than men – too many Tobey Maguires and Leonardo DiCaprios, they might say, not enough William Holdens. I’d hate to disillusion anyone, but even the hard-drinking movie tough guy-extraordinaire Bill Holden (“Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Network”) was, himself, a boy once – a quite callow golden boy, in fact. Worse, as Holden readily admitted, he’d have lost that crucial first gig were it not for the intercession of his leading lady, Barbara Stanwyck.
“Golden Boy” was a big deal in its day. Based on a hit play by the then au courant leftist playwright Clifford Odets, “Golden Boy” spawned the subgenre of anti-boxing boxing pictures with its story of Joe Bonaparte (Holden), a youthful Italian-American violinist turned prizefighter. As the film opens, Joe is determined to make a success of himself through his pugilistic skills, but his beloved father (Lee J. Cobb) has bought him an expensive, rare violin. Poppa knows that Joe’s heart lies in music, even if Joe is only too ready to be seduced by the fast-money allure of the not-so-sweet science, represented by promoter Tom Moody (Adolph Menjou) and his girlfriend, Lorna Moon (Stanwyck). Joe is torn; he loves his father and his music, so he starts holding back in his fights, afraid to harm his fiddle-playing hands. That’s when Lorna starts using her feminine wiles on young Joe, falling in love with the youngster in the process.
While audiences might have seen it as searing drama in its day, today “Golden Boy” comes across mostly as schmaltzy fun and the original source of several show-biz clichés and old jokes. It might have held up better if the play’s rough edges had not been trimmed away by a team of four screenwriters. Lorna became less frankly sexual to conform to the strict censorship of the time. Worse, the play’s frown of a tragic final act was turned upside down for a more audience-friendly conclusion. In show business, some things never change.
And then there’s the acting, a real study in contrasts. As the good bad-girl who steals Joe’s heart, Barbara Stanwyck has the best role. She was an astonishing actress throughout her long career, and at 32 she was never more wholesomely sexy or more convincing. Also, acting powerhouse Lee J. Cobb (“The Exorcist,” “Death of a Salesman”) sports a cartoony Italian accent that’s downright ridiculous by modern standards. He talks-a like Chico Marks and looksa-like a middle-aged Mario Brother, but he’s also a great, loveable ham in the part. Most problematic is Holden, who apparently really did require a great deal of work just to get by in the role. He manages to turn in an energetic but shallow performance that comes from an entirely different planet than his later appearances. He’s a long, long way from the River Kwai.
Acting aside, “Golden Boy” still works to some degree because of Rouben Mamoulian’s sharp direction and what’s left of Clifford Odet’s writing. The set-bound recreation of New York City is almost a black and white masterpiece, and the frequently mannered dialogue snaps. Odets, the inspiration for the Coen Brothers’ tragically self-involved playwright, “Barton Fink,” was trying hard to be a streetwise Shakespeare. He never got that close, but it’s fun to hear him try.
Single-Disc DVD Review:
This technically superb DVD, remastered in high definition, looks great. It also includes a mix-bagged of extras, mostly of interest to hardcore film buffs only. Leading off is a tedious Columbia boxing-themed animated short, “The Kangaroo Kid.” Three Stooges completists might be curious about “Pleased to Mitt You,” a rare entry in a series of boxing-themed live-action shorts directed by the Stooges’ Jules White and prominently featuring Shemp Howard – the rest of us should stay very far away. More interesting is a promotional newsreel, “1930 Screen Snapshots” – a bit of old-school Hollywood PR from the dawn of the talking picture, featuring glimpses of such Depression-era playgrounds of the wealthy as Palm Springs and Santa Monica.
By far the best of the special features is an episode of the now forgotten TV drama anthology, “Ford Theater,” starring Barbara Stanwyck as the harried wife of a town sheriff with a sick child and a frontier vendetta to contend with. The 1956 production is crude but compelling – though it might have been unwatchable without Stanwyck’s powerful, earnest performance. The lady was a pro.