Golden Boy – Rouben Mamoulian
When Columbia first announced its purchase of Clifford Odets’ Group Theatre play Golden Boy, it seemed a strange choice, because that studio had never favored dramas of strong social significance. Odets was not hired to adapt his own play for film; instead, four top writers carefully deleted the play’s social comment from the screenplay that was being prepared. Some of the controversial characters-were completely eliminated; the romance was built up; and the hero’s conflict was simplified. A happy ending was devised as a substitute for the play’s conclusion. All things considered, the screenwriters did a good job, for Golden Boy as a movie proved to be much stronger entertainment than the play. Today the play is dated, but the movie is still as pertinent as it was at the time of its initial release.
When the production was first announced in the trade magazines, it featured an appealing painting of Jean Arthur, who was announced as its star. Producer Harry Cohn was biding his time, hoping to borrow John Garfield from Warner Bros. for the title role, but Jack Warner and Harry Cohn were feuding, so Garfield could not be secured for the part. Things began to fall into place, though, when Rouben Mamoulian was signed as director. Mamoulian was a versatile man who could never be typed in any one kind of film. Whatever the background of the story he was directing, its cinematic mood was always beautifully sustained. He was faced with two strong dramatic story lines to resolve: the romance between an unworldly youth and a sophisticated girl; and the internal struggle of the boy who had to choose between fulfilling himself artistically through his music, and the opportunity to achieve quick success as a boxer. Mamoulian had one advantage in telling the story on the screen that could never be realized in the theater: he could show the prizefight sequences realistically. In the theater these scenes had to take place offstage; in the film they are superbly done, and convey an electric charge of quick ringside excitement and suspense.
Mamoulian demonstrated superb taste in casting his picture. He was fortunate in being able to get Barbara Stanwyck for the heroine, Lorna Moon, the girl friend of the fight manager Tom Moody, who is perfectly played by Adolphe Menjou. Stanwyck had just finished her last scenes as the heroine in De Mille’s Union Pacific (1939), and she came over to Columbia with almost no break from her Paramount duties. Lee J. Cobb had been in the original stage play in a minor part, but was cast by Mamoulian in the more important role of Mr. Bonaparte, the boy’s father, who dreams of his son’s becoming a great violinist and who strongly opposes his son’s boxing career because of the threat it holds of injuring the boy’s hands. Joseph Calleia was exactly right for the mobster, Eddie Fuseli, and Sam Levene, as the taxi driver Siggie, provided the humor the story needed.
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