A note from Lindsey: This film was viewed as part of TMP’s Barbara Stanwyck filmography project. This is the 37th film I’ve watched from Stanwyck’s filmography, and the 40th title if we’re including television.
Joe Bonaparte (William Holden) is a talented violinist who decides that he wants to become a boxer much to the chagrin of his father (Lee J. Cobb), who wants him to keep pursuing music.
Tom Moody (Adolphe Menjou) is a boxing manager who decides to take a chance on Joe in hopes that Joe’s success will pull him out of the financial ruin that he is headed for.
Lorna Moon (Barbara Stanwyck), Moody’s right-hand lady, uses her feminine charms to keep Joe boxing when he questions his decision.
Lorna and Joe begin to actually fall for each other as Joe rises in status and racketeering thugs get involved. The situation soon becomes sticky for everyone, and Lorna begins to change her mind about Joe’s future.
Rouben Mamoulian directs 1939’s Golden Boy, which marks William Holden’s film debut. Barbara Stanwyck herself fought to keep Holden in the film when the studio wanted to dismiss him, and he later thanked her on stage at the Academy Awards, crediting her with saving his career.
Holden looks very young here, and it’s interesting to see him in such an early role. He already shows immense talent, pulling off both sides of his character – the tough boxer and the more sensitive, artistic musician – with ease. Stanwyck definitely made the right call by fighting for him. He’s a perfect fit for the role.
Stanwyck’s “tough as nails gal with a heart of gold” character is a farily typical role for her, but as usual she impresses. Even when her characters are similar she brings a certain exuberance and new layers of emotion to each so that the performances don’t run together in the minds of avid viewers of her films. We never feel the need to say “Oh, there’s Stanwyck, playing the same character again!” because she is so consistently phenomenal.
While Stanwyck, Menjou and Holden are undoubtedly wonderful in this film, all of the supports are great as well. Fantastic performances are given all around, giving the audience (including those of us who aren’t interested in boxing at all!) good reason to become emotionally invested in the story.
There is also a lot of drama for the viewer to get hooked on. The script is well-written, packed with interesting and endearing characters both central and side. Don’t be put off thinking that this is some kind of action-packed boxing flick: it is definitely more of a character-driven story.
There are a few high-tension, very nicely photographed fight scenes, but these are far from becoming the film’s total focus.
The story gets wrapped up in a fantastic ending that is surprising, emotional and full of force.
Golden Boy is more than just your typical sports film: it is a beautifully crafted drama. The score: 4.5/5
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