Boxing And Barbara Stanwyck: ‘Golden Boy’ Reviewed

by Rachel Bellwoar

In cases where a film has a predominately male cast, it’s always best to be wary about how plum a part the female lead will have. Plenty of talented actresses have been wasted in girlfriend or wife roles that only appear in a few scenes, yet their names get top billing (not that screentime is the best measure of a memorable performance – think Gene Tierney in Night and the City, to name another boxing movie).

All of this is to say that Golden Boy isn’t necessarily a movie you’d turn on for Barbara Stanwyck, yet her performance is the film’s best kept secret. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian and based on a play of the same name by Clifford Odets, William Holden stars (in his first leading role) as Joe Bonaparte, a violinist turned boxer who is torn between his love of music and his desire to make a living.

Without knowing how true the screenplay is to Odets’ play (four writers are credited with the screenplay: Lewis Meltzer, Daniel Taradash, Sarah Y. Mason, and Victor Heerman), Golden Boy isn’t a hard film to figure out if you’ve seen other boxing movies, but it is unusual in the sense that it tends to do the opposite of what’s expected. Usually, for instance, it would be Joe’s father (Lee J. Cobb) who’d be the one pushing Joe to give up on his dreams and find a paying job, but in Golden Boy it’s Joe who wants to get into the ring, while his dad keeps trying to get him to play on the expensive violin he bought Joe as a birthday present.

Lorna (Stanwyck) is the would-be love interest though, when they meet, she’s engaged to the man whose about to become Joe’s manager, Tom Moody (Adolphe Menjou). Usually in boxing movies the girlfriend wants their boyfriend to give up fighting (see Rocky IISomebody Up There Likes Me, Requiem for a Heavyweight, etc.). Lorna, however, has a personal stake in getting Joe to fight. Tom is still married, and a fighter like Joe could help him raise enough money to pay for a divorce.

While these changes make Golden Boy different from other boxing films, sometimes there’s a reason certain storylines are common while others are avoided. It’s all well and good that Joe’s father doesn’t want his son to give up his gift, but he needs to make money somehow.

Golden Boy is a film of big performances, some of which border on the cartoonish, from Cobb’s grating attempt to pass for Italian by going the Mario-route, and adding ‘a’s to the end of most words, to Sam Levene doing his best Groucho Marx impression as Joe’s brother-in-law, Siggie, to Beatrice Blinn (whose credits include Three Stooges shorts), who would’ve made a great Adelaide in Guy and Dolls but here plays Joe’s sister (fun fact: Levene originated the role of Nathan Detroit on Broadway).

Surrounded by all of these high-strung males, Stanwyck’s Lorna makes for a sharp contrast — a center of calm — and while we’re only given a few nuggets of information about her backstory, Stanwyck uses them to come up with motivations for her character that add substance to what could’ve been a thin role.

For a boxing movie, Golden Boy doesn’t have much boxing, but it makes the ending, when Joe fights the Chocolate Drop (James ‘Cannonball’ Green) for the title of middleweight champion, all the more intense. It’s here that Mamoulian shows what makes him a great director. Instead of focusing on the fighters, Mamoulian is more interested in the spectators watching the fight, and while it would’ve been nice if the film had introduced the Chocolate Drop earlier, so he could’ve had a bigger role to match his importance at the end, it’s still a powerful sequence, especially when Joe runs into the Chocolate Drop’s family later on (it should be mentioned, that while many of the Black cast members have been identified on IMDB they weren’t credited at the time). Mamoulian also does a great job with the film’s theme of Joe being torn between two professions. It’s very Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (a film Mamoulian also directed), especially all of the talk about Joe’s hands, like they no longer belong to him.

Golden Boy is available now on all-region Blu-Ray from Imprint Films.

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