Golden Boy (1939)

Note: This review is part of my contribution to a series Ruben is doing over at his site. Click the above images for more details.

Back in the early days of film, one of the most frequent subjects was prizefights. The short nature of the event as well as the popularity of the sport made it an ideal subject for film. But what might make for a couple of exciting moments in the ring may not be enough to sustain a feature film. While there have been no lack of boxing movies, from Raging Bull to Rocky to Million Dollar Baby, film has always had a fascination with the sport, but Golden Boy takes a rather unique approach to the subject of boxing.

As much as the film is the drive of Joe Bonaparte (William Holden) to be a champion boxer, the film has little interest in actually showing the fights. In fact, the only fight in the entire film takes place in the last act of the film, so those hoping for a number of fights should check out some of the aforementioned boxing flicks. Instead, the film uses the freed up runtime to focus on the characters in the film.

At the center is Tom, a young man with promising talent, both as a boxer as well as a violinist. While his Father (Lee J. Cobb) encourages him to take up the violin and make beautiful music, Tom’s fiery disposition drives him to be a fighter. And yet, when he picks up the violin, he feels the desire once more, embraces the softer and more expressive side of his nature.

William Holden’s first lead role also has its own internal tension. Especially in some of the softer scenes, there’s a little bit of awkwardness to his performance, an odd timing that almost suggests that he’s a little insecure in the role. Luckily, this can fit the character he is playing, but at times, it’s clear he’s not actually acting, but actually scared. However, when the rage is on, he’s got the bold, fiery presence that he would become known for.

Opposite him are Tom Moody (Adolphoe Menjou), his manager, and Lorna Moon (Barbra Stanwyck), Tom’s mistress. Both have plans to make him a great boxer, although, their sharp tongues and hasty words suggest they don’t necessarily have the best of intentions. Most of the scenes with this pair pop with smart dialogue. It’s not the greatest dialogue written, but a reminder of a time when every line spoken was slick, smart and sexy.

Then there’s Tom’s family, the aforementioned father, as well as Tom’s sister and her husband. Watching the way the two group of characters collide, both with each other and amongst each other, sustains a lot of the film’s running time as constant bickering over Tom’s life and his aspirations  are the constant focal point of most conversations. It’s only through Tom that any of these characters even have a hope of touching anything close to greatness and they all want to see at least a glimpse of it.

Golden Boy is not the most well-crafted or engaging story told. It a lot of ways, it’s a precursor to an entire series of films built around the idea of misunderstood and conflicted young people that would emerge in the ‘50s with films like Rebel Without a Cause, films that arguably took a lot of these ideas and did them much better.

But what makes Golden Boy so memorable is that it goes to some unexpected places and crafts some fantastic drama without being as overwrought and melodramatic as a number of similar films. Much like its main character, the film is rough around the edges and appears transparent, but somehow finds a way to exceed your expectations.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing