Tuesday 17 April 2018

Golden Boy (1939)

Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Writers: Lewis Meltzer, Daniel Taradash, Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman, from the play by Clifford Odets
Stars: Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, William Holden, Lee J Cobb, Joseph Calleia and Sam Levene

Index: 2018 Centennials.

I’ve long felt that William Holden is unjustly overlooked by the general public. It’s not that he’s forgotten; any classic film fan can reel off their five favourite Holden performances and probably add a few more to boot. It’s not that he didn’t make great movies; he arguably made a lot more of those than many of the golden age actors who are still household names today, like Clark Gable or Joan Crawford. It’s not that he didn’t have a lot of talent; he won an Oscar for Stalag 17 and was nominated on two other occasions. I think his biggest problem is that he’s not what people remember from those films. Those other two nominations were for Sunset Boulevard and Network, which are now playing in your head without him in attendance. It wasn’t Holden’s character who said, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.” Neither was it he who said, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” He was good enough in each of those films to be Oscar-nominated but we remember Gloria Swanson and Peter Finch.

To a lesser degree, the same goes for much of the rest of his career, which was a stellar one in which he invariably picked the right movies and did a great job in them, but he’s not who we remember. When I think of The Country Girl, it’s Grace Kelly who comes to mind. When I think of The Bridge on the River Kwai, it’s Sir Alec Guinness or perhaps Sessue Hayakawa. When I think of Sabrina, it’s Audrey Hepburn. And that’s just a start. The Horse Soldiers? John Wayne. Born Yesterday? Judy Holliday. The Towering Inferno or The Wild Bunch? Take your pick from those incredible ensemble casts. Now, I am missing out a number of other movies where Holden is emphatically the actor we remember most, but who in the general public has seen The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Picnic or even Stalag 17 nowadays? I know folk who teach visual effects in college and they have trouble finding students who have even seen the original Star Wars. I wrote a book because a college film class couldn’t identify Charlie Chaplin. What chance has William Holden got?

Well, if you start delving into classic film, he shows up early and comes back often, especially in the fifties where he ranked as one of the top ten stars of the year five years in a row, and it all began here in Golden Boy. He was born one hundred years ago today, as William Franklin Beedle, Jr. and was apparently given his stage name by Harold Winston, a Columbia scout, who was still carrying a torch for his ex-wife, Gloria Holden. Hey, this is Hollywood, right? Where else could a story like that make sense? And where else could someone start at the top like this, playing the title character in a major film, billed alongside Barbara Stanwyck and Adolphe Menjou? This was Holden’s first screen credit, after only two appearances in other pictures. That’s a pretty quick leap to stardom! Well, it’s not quite that simple. Some reports suggest that Columbia had considered 5,000 actors for the part and 80 of them were given screen tests. They cast Holden but were going to dismiss him after a few days of filming. Stanwyck fought to keep him.

What she saw in him, we can only guess, because this is far from his best movie and he’s not particularly good in it. In fact, at only 21 years of age, he’s so young that we hardly even recognise him under that mop of curly hair, but it’s a good part, he grows with it and there are scenes where he gets lost in the role and we can see the future knocking. He remembered Stanwyck’s faith in him all his life. On the first anniversary of the start of shooting, he sent her two dozen roses, a white carnation and a thank you note, and he continued that practice until he died in 1981. He thanked her publicly too, on the stage of the Academy Awards in 1978 as they prepared to present. “It is due to her generosity that I’m here tonight,” he announced. Looking back, that’s sentimental and touching, but we can see the truth of it when we watch Golden Boy. I’ve seen many worse performances in my life, but he was not ready to play this part. He bucked up and did it anyway because she put her faith in him and the rest, as they say, is history.
He’s Joe Bonaparte, a first generation Italian-American in New York City, whose father runs an Italian-American grocery and loves music. Joe is a violinist himself, who had a scholarship to a music institute and plays classical music like he was born to do nothing else. He’s a day away from turning twenty-one and his dad has a serious present for him: a Ruggieri violin that cost him $1,500, an impressive sum in 1939, when the average man earned $1,730 a year and the average new car cost $1,340 with gas at 10c a gallon. Joe loves the violin—“more than anything,” he tells his dad—but he’s been playing for ten years and hasn’t got anywhere. Instead, he decides that he’s going to fight for a living, so he can buy things and give things. Oh, and his break just arrived while sparring with Lucky Nelson, who broke his hand. Nelson has an important fight coming up and Bonaparte takes the news to his manager, Tom Moody, who reluctantly accepts Bonaparte as a replacement when his girlfriend, Lorna Moon, recommends that he do so.

It surely can’t be too surprising to find that this isn’t a boxing drama, though we do see Holden topping the bill at Madison Square Garden late in the picture, fighting an opponent named, get this, Chocolate Drop. What are the odds on you guessing his race? The latter half of the thirties is often described as Hollywood’s golden age but many of its films are marred by the blatant racism of the time. No wonder James “Cannonball” Green, an actual boxer, then retired, who had fought for the California middleweight title in 1934, didn’t act again until Rocky IV in 1985, almost half a century later. What Golden Boy really boils down to is a clash between the sublime and the crass, artistic integrity and commercial success, the urge to create art and the need to make money. That’s a good concept and framing it as violin vs. boxing gloves is a logical choice, given that the danger of injury using the latter could block the possibility of the former. Sadly, it’s also an overblown melodrama, often seeming like what it was: a product of four scriptwriters.
Originally, it was a play, written by Clifford Odets and staged on Broadway from 1937-1938 by the Group Theatre, “America’s first true theatrical collective”, where co-founder Lee Strasberg would create the technique known as method acting. It would remain their most successful production in a decade of operation. At least one cast member would go on to this film adaptation, which is surprisingly close to its source material, changing only a few names here and there and, rather inevitably, its downbeat ending. It was Lee J. Cobb who appeared in both play and film, but he didn’t reprise his original role; instead he took on the part of Joe’s dad, a truly bizarre casting choice. Cobb was 27 at the time, but he was playing maybe twice that. In reality, he was six years older than his screen son, William Holden, and five years younger than his son’s love interest, Barbara Stanwyck. What’s more, he was tasked with playing an immigrant from Italy who runs an Italian-American grocery and lives up to a number of stereotypes.

Ironically, it’s Cobb who I appreciated the most, partly because one of the stereotypes he doesn’t adhere to is gesticulation. He’s a quiet man, even when he’s passionate about something, and that’s neatly highlighted in scenes with Adolphe Menjou and Edward Brophy. Menjou is Tom Moody, of course, and he’s as annoyingly noisy as Cobb is admirably quiet. He plays the boxing promoter like a fast shouting journalist, a breed he knew well, given that his only Oscar nomination was for portraying Pat O’Brien’s editor in The Front Page back in 1931. Brophy is Roxy Lewis, the fellow promoter who gets 10% of Joe when Moody has him replace Lucky Nelson. Most people remember Brophy nowadays for voicing Timothy Q. Mouse in Disney’s take on Dumbo, but he was one of the perennial supporting cast in Warner Bros. pictures; he was the corpse in All Through the Night, which I reviewed for Kaaren Verne only a couple of weeks ago. I usually like him a lot but, here, he’s constantly trying to out-shout Menjou and it gets grating.
Even Barbara Stanwyck gets in on that, though her shouts are more like sneers and she knows when to quieten down and take it easy. Her quiet scenes here, often with Cobb, are magnificent. She’s Lorna Moon, who fortunately gets some substance when she’s not being the romantic interest to each of the male leads. Initially, she’s Tom Moody’s girl, even though Menjou was 49 and she 32. Moody is also married, though Bonaparte’s success may actually allow him to divorce his wife, who wants $5,000 for his freedom, and marry Lorna instead. Of course, as time goes on, and she has to attempt to convince Joe of things through honey when Moody fails utterly with vinegar, she starts to fall for the young lad, though she’s stubborn enough to not take the easy road at any point. Stanwyck’s characters in the thirties were always stubborn and, while I usually prefer her in pre-codes, where she shone, she has much to offer here as a world-weary dame who’s stuck on a path that she might not like but thinks that she deserves anyway.

Joe Bonaparte seems like a way out but only for a while, because he changes. Initially, he’s a little wishy-washy. He wants to fight because he’s good at it and it’s an easy way for him to make money, but he doesn’t seem to use that money and he’s good with the violin too. So he quits and Lorna talks him back into it. After that, he becomes consumed by it, especially when Eddie Fuseli shows up and demonstrates an interest in the lad. Fuseli is a mobster and actor Joseph Calleia is happy to play him on the edge of parody, supremely confident and forever mildly suggesting what he clearly requires. Bonaparte joins up with him when he demonstrates just how connected he is; Joe wants to fight at Madison Square Garden and Moody hasn’t managed to make that happen yet. Eddie gets on the phone and mildly suggests that the other party “will do yourself a personal favour” if he puts Bonaparte on a card and, hey presto, there he is. That shoves a wedge in between him and Lorna, who doesn’t like what he’s become.
We do like what he’s become, because we care about different things to the characters in the film. He’s angrier, more dynamic, an easier part for the young William Holden to play because he’s less subtle, more dramatic. Early on, when he’s quieter, it seems like we’re watching William Holden who’s trying to act. Once he gets angry, he’s more able to lose himself in the role and let us see Joe Bonaparte instead. His best quiet scene comes towards the very end, after he’s killed a man in the ring. I argued with myself about mentioning that as it’s a spoiler, but it’s really just another step on Joe’s progression as a character, which is really what the film is about. He doesn’t cheat or do anything underhand, but his knockout punch in the second leaves Chocolate Drop dead. It’s just how the sport works sometimes and he gets an impressive scene with his opponent’s family as he struggles to accept what he’s done. It may be the first time we acknowledge Joe as real, because he was too quiet early on and too angry later. Here, he’s just right.

Mentioning it also allows me to highlight how this is the “Boom Boom” Mancini story, merely 43 years before that unfolded in real life. Mancini came from a boxing family and inherited his nickname from his father, Lenny Mancini, who was a successful boxer in the forties; he had won, drawn and lost at Madison Square Garden as a lightweight. It was his son, Ray Mancini, however, who won a world title, the WBA lightweight belt, in 1982. It was his second defence of that title, though, against a South Korean challenger, Kim Duk Koo, that resonated. Mancini won in the fourteenth round, by a technical knockout, but Kim fell into a coma immediately afterwards because of a subdural haematoma; he died four days later. Mancini became deeply depressed and attended the funeral in South Korea. It can’t have helped that Kim’s mother committed suicide three months later and even the referee followed suit a year later. However, the governing bodies of boxing started to take safety seriously, by shortening title bouts to twelve rounds.
Of course, given that Clifford Odets didn’t write his play after Biff Tannen shared his future copy of Grays Sports Almanac, this was still fiction in 1939 and Holden could continue his career guilt-free. Initially, the success of Golden Boy led him to other supporting slots, like Invisible Stripes, in which he was credited under George Raft and Jane Bryan but above Humphrey Bogart, or Arizona, the picture for which Old Tucson Studios was built, in which he was credited below Jean Arthur but above Warren William. He started to get lead roles too, in films like Those Were the Days! and Our Town, but the Second World War was coming and he spent that as a Air Force second lieutenant, acting in training films for the First Motion Picture Unit alongside Ronald Reagan, who would become a lifelong friend—when Reagan married Nancy Davis, Holden was his best man and his wife, Brenda Marshall, was Nancy’s matron of honour. Returning to Hollywood, his films weren’t too memorable until Sunset Boulevard in 1950, after which he was a star.

As much as we remember Sunset Boulevard for Gloria Swanson’s magnificent return to the big screen, Holden was technically the lead, beginning the film as a corpse floating in her swimming pool and spending the rest of it exploring in flashback how he found his way there. He landed the part when Montgomery Clift backed out of it, probably because he was having an affair with an older woman in real life; after it, the fifties were his, with a string of notable films that still stand up well today. He was a top ten star in 1954 and remained one until 1958, with his pictures during that period so notable that, if you asked half a dozen classic film fans for their favourite, they might each pick a different one; personally I’d have a tough time deciding between Executive Suite, Picnic and The Bridge on the River Kwai. His subsequent career is well documented, as is his gradual decline into alcoholism, which killed him in 1981, when he fell in his Santa Monica apartment, cut his forehead on a bedside table and bled to death on the floor.
His legacy isn’t only in film. In 1964, when on safari in Kenya with Don Hunt, a pet shop owner who ran an animal show on Detroit television, he fell in love with the country and its wildlife; the pair decided to found the Mount Kenya Game Ranch on 1,200 acres of land near Nanyuki, which contains the Mount Kenya Conservancy, an animal orphanage, breeding program and rehabilitation center. After his death, actress Stefanie Powers, with whom he had spent the last decade of his life, founded the William Holden Wildlife Foundation there, which teaches the youth of Kenya about their native wildlife. Of course, he’s remembered by most for his acting and that came full circle for him in 1982, four months after his death, when Barbara Stanwyck was awarded an honorary Oscar. Presenter John Travolta quoted Holden’s words to her on stage in 1978, as did she. She ended her speech with, “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 got your wish.”

Stanwyck, Despite Injury, Accepts a Film Award (The New York Times, 11 Apr 1987)

History of Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy

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