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.
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.