Golden Boy – Rouben Mamoulian
The most difficult role to fill was that of the young hero, the golden boy himself, Joe Bonaparte. Sixty-five youthful actors were tested for the part, and Mamoulian, a perfectionist, found fault with all of them. He finally tested an unknown, a youth of twenty-one, who was under contract to Paramount but had done virtually nothing on the screen except a few appearances in such routine pictures as Prison Farm (1938) and Million Dollar Legs (1932). His name was William Holden, and Mamoulian detected something in his screen test that was just what he wanted to portray in the character of Joe Bonaparte. Harry Cohn opposed the casting, but Mamoulian went to bat for young Holden; so did Barbara Stanwyck. Grudgingly, Cohn agreed to Holden’s playing the part, but when he made the deal to borrow the boy from Paramount, he insisted on buying half of his contract. Because Holden was only under stock contract at that time and Paramount was paying him fifty dollars a week, it meant that Columbia was getting him for a weekly twenty-five dollars.
Holden’s performance is workmanlike, believable, often brilliant, and de¬serving of the stardom he subsequently gained. Joe Napoleon is a sensitive youth whose father has sacrificed much to make him an accomplished musician. The boy is dual-natured, for he has mastered the difficult violin and is on the threshold of a career as a virtuoso. Yet, in exercising at the gym, he has gained a reputation as an amateur boxer, and when an impecunious manager, Tom Moody, sees him fight in the ring, he envisions a winner and signs the boy to a contract, promising him a quick rise to fame and fortune. Moody, also aware of the boy’s innocence concerning women, instructs his own mistress, Lorna Moon, to lure the boy and entice him to stay in the fight world rather than pursue his music. Lorna does as Moody wishes, but she falls in love with Joe, even as she is urging him to stay with his fighting career.
Joe introduces Lorna to his family. When she understands what Joe’s life has been and comprehends his genuine love of music, she switches her loyalties to persuade him to give up his fighting career. A gangster, however takes over the boy’s contract for betting purposes, causing Lorna to be so disillusioned and disgusted that she agrees to marry Moody.
In the big fight, Joe’s opponent is a young black prizefighter. Joe knocks him out with such a punch that he breaks his own hand and kills the black boy. Joe, overwhelmed by this tragedy, throws away his gloves and all thoughts of a career in the ring. In a well-played scene, he goes to the black fighter’s father, who is mourning his dead son. The father tells him tearfully that he does not blame Joe for his boy’s death. He had never wanted his son to fight, and he is sorry that it had to be a boy of Joe’s caliber who killed him.
Lorna breaks with Moody and his way of life and comes to Joe. They are reunited, with his father’s blessing. This ending was generally applauded by film critics. Even the few who were disappointed did admit that the double suicide of the boy and the girl in the play had been meaningless and that the movie reconciliation was done with taste and tenderness and did not signify a “tacked-on” happy ending.
Golden Boy was one of Columbia’s all-time best films, and the fact that it gained only one Academy Award nomination—to Victor Young for Original Score—should not be held against it. It was released in 1939, frequently cited as the greatest year for the talking film, and was in competition with Gone with the Wind; The Wizard of Oz; Wuthering Heights; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and other films that are still favorites among both moviegoers and moviemakers. Golden Boy remains well-liked, however, and gains new admirers whenever it is revived, for it is one of Mamoulian’s finest contributions to the cinema.
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