Appellate Judge Tom Becker thought this was going to be about one of Jerry Seinfeld's T-shirts.
"It's a big city. Little people don't stand a chance."
March 29, 1978. Oscar Night. Vanessa Redgrave kicked off the evening by winning the award for Best Supporting Actress for Julia and then giving an astoundingly misguided acceptance speech about "Zionist hoodlums." Twenty minutes or so later, Hollywood legends William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck came out to present the award for sound. Before they read the nominees, Holden made a speech of his own:
"Before Barbara and I present this next award, I'd like to say something. Thirty-nine years ago this month, we were working in a film together called Golden Boy. It wasn't going well, and I was going to be replaced. But due to this lovely human being and her interest and understanding and her professional integrity and encouragement and, above all, her generosity, I'm here tonight."
Stanwyck, caught completely by surprise, could only mutter, "Oh, Bill," as she hugged her former co-star.
Now, Sony is releasing this 1939 film on DVD.
Facts of the Case
Joe Bonaparte (William Holden, Sunset Boulevard) is a young man with a dream: He wants to be a prizefighter. Joe approaches Tom Moody (Adolphe Menjou, Stage Door), but Moody's already got a fighter, and besides, Joe doesn't look like he's got what it takes. Moody also has other problems. He's trying to put together enough money to divorce his wife so he can marry his girlfriend, Lorna Moon (Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity). On the day of a bout, when Moody's other fighter breaks his hand—sparring with Joe, we later find out—Moody gives Bonaparte a chance.
At home, Joe's father (Lee J. Cobb, The Exorcist) has gotten Joe a special gift for his 21st birthday: a violin, one that cost $1,500, a fortune in those Depression-era days. But it's worth it for Papa Bonaparte. Joe's a great musician and has such talented and sensitive hands.
Needless to say, Papa's not pleased by Joe's new direction and remains unimpressed as his boy slugs his way up the pugilist ladder. But Joe isn't finding success all that fulfilling, and when he picks up the violin one night, it looks like his heart has gone from the ring to the strings.
Moody asks Lorna to try to persuade Joe to return to the fighting fold, so our tough gal plays soft for the brash boy. But the closer Lorna gets to Joe, the more she feels for him.
Golden Boy is a creaky classic from the "golden age" of Hollywood. Its fine production, cast of stars and solid character actors, and pedigree (based on a Broadway play by the highly regarded Clifford Odets) make it a classic. Its hackneyed story, sometimes florid performances, and stagy style make it creaky.
Odets wrote the play in 1937 for The Group Theatre, a New York-based company that included Harold Clurman, Elia Kazan, and John Garfield. While Group Theatre productions were often social commentaries, Golden Boy was a melodrama that emphasized character conflicts. Even though it takes place in the late 1930s, no one ever mentions the Depression—strange, given the art vs. commerce theme and the attention to social and political themes in most of Odets's work. Odets does give the Bonapartes a quirky Old Leftie for a neighbor, who spouts the expected aphorisms and asides ("Nowadays, where have we got freedom of speech?").
On Broadway, 21-year-old Joe Bonaparte was played by 34-year-old Luther Adler (and, in a revival, by 39-year-old John Garfield). William Holden actually was 21 when he made the film. This was Holden's first major film role, and it shows. It's by no means a bad performance—Holden's raw uncertainty actually adds a level to the character.
The problem is that Joe Bonaparte is just not that interesting a character. He's a whiny, demanding, self-absorbed, delusional post-adolescent. An awful lot of other characters suffer mightily on Joe's quest for self.
Holden is not so much miscast as outclassed—but then, what 21-year-old could hold his own against old pros Stanwyck and Menjou, who brought depth, humor, and humanity to even the slickest characters? While Odets's dialogue can be stylized and convoluted, Stanwyck, Menjou, and Joseph Calleia (as gangster "Eddie Fuseli") play their scenes with an almost giddy aplomb and crackle.
Famous-for-being-tragic actress Frances Farmer originated the role of Lorna Moon on Broadway, but here, Stanwyck makes it her own. Even when she's not front-and-center, you can't take your eyes off her. Every line, every look, every gesture is right.
What doesn't seem right is her romantic interest in Joe. It's not that she's a few years older than he is, but that she is light years away from him. What this wise-to-the-world woman would see in this preening boy is never really clear.
The film really loses its footing in the homey scenes in the Bonaparte household. Although Cobb was cast as Holden's father, the actor was only 27, and he plays Papa with a "loveable" Italian accent and tics and bits of business that suggest a young man playing old. Cobb did a far more credible job playing old a few years later, at 37, when he originated the role of 60-year-old Willy Loman in the Broadway debut of Death of a Salesman.
Golden Boy is a film about the gritty world of boxing that doesn't want to get its mitts dirty. A third-act twist comes too late to provide any real emotional heft, and the happy ending seems tacked on and out of place. Still, fans of the actors and the era will be glad that this is finally available on DVD.
Given what I've seen from Sony recently, I was disappointed in the quality of this disc. The transfer here is sub-par, grainy, soft, and damaged. I don't know how much of this is a problem with the source material (the film is close to 70 years old), but I've certainly seen films from that era that looked much better than this. The audio, on the other hand, is great, a remastered Mono track that's clear and crisp.
I've seen enough bare-bones releases of classic films to appreciate any supplements a studio is willing to offer. Rather than go with serious, informative fare, Sony has given us a few fun extras. "The Kangaroo Kid" is a '30s-era Merry Melodies-style cartoon that parodies Golden Boy. "Pleased to Mitt You" is a goofy, live-action short that has college-age guys settling their differences by gloving up and slugging it out in a restaurant. "Screen Snapshots" is a 1930s version of Entertainment Tonight, newsreel-type footage of celebs of the day, including a jaw-droppingly young Barbara Stanwyck getting a golf lesson.
If you want to relive the "moviehouse experience" of this bygone era, you could watch the shorts before diving into Golden Boy. For a look at later Stanwyck, there's a half-hour TV drama in which she plays a conflicted marshal's wife in the old West. The original trailer for Golden Boy rounds out the extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A few months ago, Sony took a cheesy, '50s sci-fi movie, remastered and colorized it, produced some kick-ass extras, and gave us one of the most surprisingly satisfying releases of the year: 20 Million Miles to Earth: 50th Anniversary Edition. While I really didn't expect lightning to strike twice, I was hoping for more than what's here. They couldn't have come up with a feature on Director Rouben Mamoulian? Stanwyck? Holden? Menjou? Odets? With all the famous names that came out of The Group Theatre, their controversial politics, and their involvement with Joe McCarthy and the "red scare" hearings, we couldn't have gotten some background on this iconic group—an essay, documentary, or some interviews with a historian or children of the members?
The extras we do get are entertaining and nostalgic, but Sony set the bar high with previous releases. It's a shame this edition of Golden Boy wasn't a bit more golden.
March 29, 1982. Oscar Night. William Holden died the previous November. His appearance on this night is in film clips as part of the "In Memoriam" tribute.
Barbara Stanwyck received her only Academy Award that night, not for a particular role, but as an honor for all her work. She ended her speech with a tribute to Holden:
"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've got your wish."
Golden Boy might not be the quintessential boxing movie, but it's solid and comfy and gives us the debut of one screen legend and fine work from another.
Call me a sentimental lug, I just don't have it in me to find this Golden Boy or the dame guilty. Sony's done better discs and will hopefully show a little more respect the next time they release a Hollywood film of yesteryear.
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Scales of Justice
• "The Kangaroo Kid" (7:30)
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