If you look at the list of boxing movies on Wikipedia, you might be surprised to see how many have been made.
By the 1930s, boxing movies were becoming more common. Twenty-nine were released during the Depression; six of those in 1939 alone.
One of those films, Golden Boy, is credited with being an Influential Force when it comes to boxing films, but we think others released that decade were more significant, e.g. The Champ (1931).
Golden Boy was based on the stage play by critically-acclaimed New York playwright, Clifford Odets, the Toast of 1930s New York Theatre-dom. It would be the last of the hugely successful Odets plays – his career trajectory had already started to stall – but that wasn’t yet apparent.
The play centres around a young man who is equally gifted at boxing and playing the violin. His father wants him to pursue music – he Scrimped For Years to buy his son a violin – but the young man ain’t no fool. He knows he could make a lotta dough in the boxing ring.
However, if he boxes, he risks ruining his hands, and playing the violin would be a Lost Opportunity. And just never mind all that moola his father spent on him, at the exclusion of other family members.
It’s worth noting Odets himself helped fund production of the play. Where did the money come from? Why, Hollywood, of course, where Odets went to write the screenplay for The General Died at Dawn – and it would not be the last time Odets would work in the film industry.
So the struggle between art and commerce, as explored in Golden Boy, may be a reflection of Odets’s own life: The clash between the Art of the Theatre and the Filthy Lucre of Hollywood.
Given its pedigree, then, Golden Boy, the movie, is surprisingly mediocre. It was William Holden’s first major film role, and he’s far from the fab, seasoned William Holden of the 1950s. The brass at Columbia Pictures wanted to fire him, but co-star Barbara Stanwyck proved to be a fierce Advocate on his behalf.
The dialogue is painful in places, although there are some gems. For example, Stanwyck tells a fresh Holden, “You’ve got plenty of speed, but in the wrong direction.”
In another scene, Holden’s manager Aldophe Menjou wants Stanwyck to manipulate the young man, but wonders if she’s up it. “I’m a dame from New York,” she replies, “and I know a dozen ways.”
Although the cast is superb (Stanwyck, of course, along with the delightfully crusty Menjou, and the slimy-yet-yet menacing Joseph Calleia), the romantic machinations are unconvincing.
Lee J. Cobb, who plays Holden’s father, makes the most of the material he’s given, but he’s unable to generate enough pathos, in our opinion.
However, despite all that, Golden Boy is a film with Heart, and when Tragedy Strikes, the choices with which Holden’s character has been grappling suddenly crystalize.
For all its faults, this film has an earnestness that endears you.
And what of the boxing itself? We (yours truly) are not expert enough to say if the boxing looks “real” or “staged”. But when the climactic Boxing Scene starts, you can’t guess the outcome beforehand, which means the script did its Job.
The final boxing scene was filmed at Madison Square Gardens, where, according to IMDb, Holden was knocked unconscious during shooting. But the footage was never used because director Rouben Mamoulian felt it didn’t look authentic.
Golden Boy is dated – it feels like a Really Old movie – but some film enthusiasts list it among their favourites. It is worth a look, if you don’t expect too much.
This post is part of the Olympic Dreams Blogathon, hosted by 18 Cinema Lane.
Golden Boy starring Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, William Holden. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Written by Lewis Meltzer, Daniel Taradash, Sarah Y. Mason. Columbia Pictures, 1939 B&W, 99 mins.