As part of my ongoing #Holden100 project this year I decided to do something I’ve been wanting to do for a while and that’s watch all of William Holden’s films in chronological order. I’ve seen about 80-percent of his filmography already but I’m excited to watch him grow as a performer by seeing the films in order of their release.
Tonight, I started with 1939’s Golden Boy directed by Rouben Mamoulian.
Famously, William Holden was almost removed from the film until Barbara Stanwyck stepped in and pleaded with producers to keep him on. Personally, I think he gives a fine debut performance. As Joe Bonaparte, Holden brings a sensitivity to the youthful character who wants to appear tough but isn’t quite sure if boxing is for him. It’s a perfect combination that makes you understand and root for his character. At just 21, he is almost unrecognizable in this role and even his voice is hard to recognize. What you see in Golden Boy is the promise of what would unfold in his career. Holden was unafraid to play multidimensional men who challenged the way we look at masculinity. At the center of the film is Joe’s conflict with wanting fame as a prize fighter or fulfilling his father’s wishes by becoming a professional violinist. You see this conflict grow and the result is a heartbreaking climax where he is forced to choose what his real passion is.
One of the things I love most about Golden Boy is Holden’s relationship with his father played by Lee J. Cobb. Cobb was just 6 years older than Holden in this part! Holden and Cobb bring to the screen a beautiful father-son dynamic and in the scenes where Cobb isn’t present and Holden’s character finds success in the ring, his presence is felt. I thought these two did a good job at conveying a deep, loving father-son dynamic that you don’t often seen on film. I also really loved the scenes with his sister and brother-in-law. Small gestures really added to Joe’s character and his struggle.
The main standout of the film is Barbara Stanwyck. Once again, she dominates her scenes as the tough Lorna who has a tender side. She is street smart, strong and as much of a fighter as Joe. Her scenes with Holden bring out the best in him and you can see her support of him that was behind the scenes. One of my favorite scenes is when she says “See you in 1960, maybe you’ll be somebody by then!” it’s quite prophetic when you consider his career. When a character asks Stanwyck’s boyfriend, “This your girl?,” she responds with the no-nonsense rigor as best as Stanwyck could with “I’m my mother’s girl,” it’s such a great moment.
The photography in this film is also something I was taken with. There’s a great shot of Joe playing the violin and it’s framed beautifully showing Stanwyck and his family reacting. There’s also a great montage of Joe’s success that conveys how quickly this journey is with shots of him in the ring, fans cheering and newspaper headlines that is one of the better efforts of this tried and true technique.
The boxing scenes are surprisingly gritty. The main fight is staged very well interspersing cutaway shots of the cheering fans. Joe’s character fights a character from Harlem in 1939 and you see a segregated Madison Square Garden in this film. Even if Holden, Cobb and the others who portrayed his family aren’t real Italians, Golden Boy tried to show a more realistic New York City than we normally see in 1930s Hollywood.
Golden Boy is an underrated gem and I am forever grateful for Stanwyck’s fight to keep Holden on board. Here’s the famous moment at the Oscars when Holden went off script and thanked a surprised Stanwyck before presenting the award for Best Sound and Visual Effects.