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Frustrated violinist Joe Bonaparte, son of an Italian-American grocer, decides to give up music and take up boxing instead. Under the guidance of manager Tom Moody, he finds immediate success as a fighter, though doubts soon creep in about his new direction in life. Moody's girlfriend Lorna Moon tries to persuade Joe to stay in the ring, but in time she falls in love with him and has a change of heart. Joe gets drawn into the world of racketeering; but when he accidentally kills an opponent during a fight and breaks his hand, he is forced to confront his conscience.
Golden Boy (1939) is an adaptation of the hit 1937 play by famed playwright Clifford Odets (1906-1963). Odets, who founded the Group Theater in New York, was known for his impassioned explorations of social issues, particularly the impact of materialism on individual aspirations and ideals. Odets had an ambivalent relationship with Hollywood throughout his career and refused to collaborate on the screenplay adaptation; not only were entire characters cut in the process, but the grim original ending--a double suicide--was reworked to make the story more palatable to filmgoing audiences. Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures purchased the rights to the play in 1938 for a hefty $100,000 with Frank Capra envisioned as the director and Jean Arthur in the key role of Lorna Moon. Capra continued to loom in the background though Rouben Mamoulian, an accomplished stage director whose resume included the 1927 production of Porgy and Bess, was eventually selected for the project; for not only did Capra fight to get the project for himself, Barbara Stanwyck biographer Axel Masden reports that Cohn even told screenwriters Lewis Meltzer and Daniel Taradash to "make it sound like Capra," much to Mamoulian's consternation.
John Garfield, who played the role of the taxi driver on stage and later played the lead, was initially considered for the much-coveted role of Joe but Columbia was unable to get him loaned out from Warner Brothers; other actors considered included Richard Carlson and Tyrone Power. When Alan Ladd, at that time an unknown, tried out for the part, he died his hair black using cakes of mascara in order to make himself look more "Italian." He recalls: "It was one of the hottest days of the year. While reading the test scene I began to feel a dripping down the back of my neck. I was taking a shower in black ink. Thanks to Mamoulian's tact, he pretended not to notice. Sue and I laugh to this day because, after our frantic efforts to be a true Italian type, another blond actor landed the role--William Holden."
William Holden won the leading role of Joe Bonaparte only by chance. Under contract at Paramount, at this point he had played only bit parts in now-forgotten films such as Prison Farm (1938) and Million Dollar Legs (1939). Mamoulian, who was studying Paramount's screen tests of Margaret Young, a possible candidate for the role of Joe's sister, was struck by the young man playing opposite her in the tests. At Mamoulian's insistence Harry Cohn hired Holden, buying out half of his meager contract of $50 per week. Only 21 at the time, Holden was insecure about his abilities and even missed work on the first week of shooting due to "nerves." Barbara Stanwyck, who was by now a seasoned professional, having established herself in films such as the legendary melodrama Stella Dallas (1937), provided Holden with crucial emotional support and defended him to Cohn, who was considering firing him. As a result of their close collaboration Stanwyck and Holden developed a special affection for their roles and for each other, although they collaborated on only one more film: Executive Suite (1954). When the two appeared on stage together at the 1978 Academy Awards, Stanwyck referred to Holden as "my golden boy," a sentiment which she echoed in 1982 when accepting her honorary Oscar: "A few years ago I stood on this stage with William Holden as a presenter. I loved him very much and I miss him. He always wished that I would get an Oscar. And so tonight, my golden boy, you got your wish."
Although not a major box office success, Golden Boy was moderately well-received by the critics; Variety singled out Barbara Stanwyck for praise, saying that "[h]er performance does much to provide a sincere ring to the picture." Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times admired Mamoulian's direction of the film's now-famous fight scene (shot on location in Madison Square Garden), describing it as a "savagely eloquent piece of cinematic social comment." Some contemporary critics, most notably Tom Milne, have argued that Mamoulian's film, with its energetic cast, sharp dialogue (especially compared to the sentimental excesses of Odets' play) and strong sense of visual style, actually holds up better today than the play. Golden Boy received one Academy Award nomination for Victor Young's score.
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Producer: William Perlberg
Screenplay: Lewis Meltzer, Daniel Taradash, Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman; based on the play by Clifford Odets.
Cinematography: Nick Musuraca and Karl Freund
Editing: Otto Meyer
Music: Victor Young
Art Direction: Lionel Banks
Principal Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Lorna Moon); Adolphe Menjou (Tom Moody); William Holden (Joe Bonaparte); Joseph Calleia (Eddie Fuseli); Sam Levene (Siggie), Edward S. Brophy (Roxy Lewis).
by James Steffen