William Holden had a long and storied career in Hollywood, ultimately starring in more than sixty films and garnering an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in 1953’s Stalag 17. His breakthrough had come three years earlier in another film for his Stalag director, Billy Wilder: the seminal 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard. But before making his mark as the doomed Joe Gillis, Holden toiled for more than a decade in pallid leading-man roles in a series of B-level pictures, never quite making a big impression on audiences.
Holden’s first starring role came in 1939, when he was cast opposite the much more experienced Barbara Stanwyck in Golden Boy, adapted from the 1937 play by Clifford Odets. Holden stars as Joe Bonaparte, an Italian-American violin virtuoso who longs to be a professional boxer. His father (Lee J. Cobb, employing an unfortunate stereotypical “Italian” accent here) 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 (Adolphe 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.
Odets, 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.
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, as their relationship comes across as more warm than fevered. But even beyond the lack of heat with his leading lady, Holden’s relative inexperience shows in a performance that has its strong moments, but 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 that more cynical Joe a decade later in Boulevard. Holden is infinitely more interesting with some mileage on him–with lines on his face and experience under his belt, he’s far sexier in his thirties than he was as Golden Boy’s baby-faced lad barely out of his teens.
Though the film tips all too often into maudlin territory, its depiction of Joe’s final fight with the unfortunately nicknamed “Chocolate Drop” (James “Cannonball” Green) is easily its greatest scene, with a wrenching emotional payoff that is both effective and heartbreaking. 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 in a manner that can be uncomfortable to watch.
Golden Boy is far from a pinnacle of the “boxing film” genre. Still, despite its flaws, the film is an interesting entry in the storied 1939 canon. Holden is undeniably green, but his earnest performance hints at the riveting dramatic actor he would eventually become, and with the able help of an always luminous Stanwyck, Golden Boy manages to deliver a generally compelling story.