“See you in 1960. Maybe you’ll be someone by then. ” ~ Barbara Stanwyck
At the Academy Awards in 1978, Bill Holden took a momentary aside to thank his co-presenter, Barbara Stanwyck, for her encouragement and support in helping to forge his career in its nascent stages. That picture they starred in together was, of course, Golden Boy.
By the late 30s, she was already a veteran actress in such saucy pre-code pictures as Baby Face (1933) and searing tearjerkers like Stella Dallas (1937). In an instance where fiction overlaps with reality, Holden played the scrawny newcomer. He could have just as easily been “baby face” in this film as a 21-year-old unknown bit player.
His Joe Bonaparte, a green kid and a newly-minted voice, has yet to mature into the smoky standard the moviegoing public would come to know as a handsome first-class flirt and sardonic wit. Still, Stanwyck fought for him to stay and he did.
The film itself is thinly wrought and certainly has aged poorly with the passage of time. The simplistic dichotomy at its center begins with a young man who has an artistic gift as a violinist and his dear father (Lee J. Cobb) wants him to cultivate the talent. However, the boy has realized he has the tenacity to be a fighter and he gets a promoter (Adolph Menjou) to take him on so he can start making some dough. After all, it’s a practical means to give his family what they have always wanted.
What it teases out is the age-old dilemma between the allure of materialism and what will actually give you a far more contented life, in this case, love and the cultivation of talents which lend beauty to the world. Initially, Joe buys into the hype backed by a gangster (Joseph Calleia) but seeing another man die in the ring straightens out his priorities for good. Many boxing dramas are fatal. Thankfully for contemporary audiences, his is allowed a palatable happy ending.
Although this would happen to him more than once, because he’s rather good at it, Lee J. Cobb is nevertheless cast way out of his age range as an ethnic Italian father-type. It’s true that this one is an overtly stagy adaption from Clifford Odet’s famed play. His presence even inadvertently reflects the overlapping nature of theater and film of the period as he would precede the likes of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and William Inge who would all see their works made into movies.
Director Rouben Marmoulian himself had an extensive background in the theater and while the initial fight sequences fly by as montage blips throughout, the culmination in the final fight in Madison Square Garden has the atmospherics down like all the foremost boxing movies. He undoubtedly gets that right and this picture effectively precedes the frenzied reaction shots of the audience mesmerized by violence in Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949) by almost 10 years.
Stanwyck carries her scenes with that passionate, winning verve of hers and she propels Holden along with her taking the inexperienced, no-name actor and helping him get by. He’s no star at this point, except one day he would be. She had enough guts to fight for him and thanks in part to her, we were given one of the most remembered Hollywood stars, “Golden Holden.”
What most people wouldn’t give to have Barbara Stanwyck in their corner. It could be unsubstantiated hearsay but the story goes Holden was forever grateful, sending his costar a bouquet of flowers every year to commemorate Golden Boy and what it meant to his career. He knew it more than anyone.
But the story did not end there. In 1982 Barbara Stanwyck was bestowed with an honorary Oscar as the Academy had never found time to give her an award for her plethora of quality performances. Shame on them. That’s not the main point, however.
Her dear friend William Holden had just recently passed away months before and so while thanking the many people behind the camera who helped her in her career from directors to stunt personnel and electricians, she also said a final word for her friend. Her Golden Boy had always wanted for her to win an award and fittingly she finally did. She raised it up, teary-eyed, in his honor, before walking off. It’s human stories such as this that transcend Film. We are better for them.