28 March 2007 | bkoganbing
Dated, But Effective
The acclaimed play by Clifford Odets, Golden Boy, ran for 250 performances during the 1937-1938 season on Broadway and as Columbia had now pulled itself into the big leagues of studios in Hollywood, Harry Cohn was able to bid for this much heralded property right up there with Mayer, Zanuck, and Zukor.
The problem was that the one guy who could have played it best, John Garfield, was over at another studio. Garfield was in the original cast on Broadway, but in the role of the brother-in-law Siggie that Sam Levene plays here. Eventually however Garfield did play the title role in a revival on Broadway in 1952, it was the last thing he did.
When I lived in New York, I saw a revival of Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing on stage and the left wing nostrums of the day were dated in the Reagan years of the Eighties. Golden Boy is similarly dated. Yet the performances in the film still hold up to some degree.
When Harry Cohn couldn't get Tyrone Power loaned out from 20th Century Fox, he decided to go for an unknown. Director Rouben Mamoulian while testing actresses for the sister part that eventually went to Bernice Blinn, he spotted a young actor who had just done two tiny bit parts in Paramount features feeding lines to the actress whose test it was. Mamoulian persuaded Cohn to call off the search and William Holden's career was launched.
It's legendary now how Barbara Stanwyck worked and rehearsed with Holden endlessly to make sure he scored a success in his feature film debut. Holden paid a heartfelt tribute to her at an Oscar ceremony and when she got her Lifetime Achievement Oscar she dedicated it to him.
It's legendarily unselfish of Stanwyck to do what she did in a town and industry where egos are gargantuan. Unselfish, but also practical. She knew that if he flopped in the lead the film would have gone down the toilet and it wouldn't do her career any good.
The only player from the original cast on Broadway to come to Hollywood was Lee J. Cobb. And not in the part he played on Broadway, on Broadway he was the neighbor Mr. Carp, in the film he's made up to be older as Cobb often was as Bill Holden's father. This set a pattern in his career.
Two other performances of note are Adolphe Menjou as Holden's manager and Joseph Calleia as the gangster Fusselli who buys into Holden's contract.
This story of a Depression kid who had a choice between a career in the ring and a career playing the violin had to be heavily rewritten for the screen. The adulterous relationship between the married Menjou whose wife we never see and Stanwyck was barely mentioned. And Stanwyck's own character was cleaned up quite a bit, in the original play she's more of a tramp than here.
My guess is that Golden Boy would have to be heavily rewritten if it were updated for today. The critical success, but financial failure of Ron Howard's Cinderella Man which was a true story of a heavyweight champion in the Depression found no audience today.
Though it's dated badly, the sincerity of the performances do come through and it's easy to see why William Holden became the star he was.