23 September 2010 | pitcairn89
A good early performance by William Holden
This is a very enjoyable saga of college life in the early 1900s, told in flashback by the main characters, presumably from the then-present year of 1940. This was one of William Holden's first starring films, and he gives a very entertaining, lively performance. His shenanigans are presented in a 'boys will be boys' manner, but in reality, some of his transgressions would have landed him in real, long-lasting trouble. It is a comedy, however, and such real-world intrusions need not apply. At the end of the movie, after we've seen his character commit just about every kind of felony (though in a good-natured way), we jump back to 1940, and get to hear Holden express frustrations about the crazy things HIS son has been doing. Pretty funny stuff.
One thing that struck me while watching this movie is in fact just how good Holden is in it. When you consider that he was only about 22 years old, and hadn't had much acting training before he got into the movies, it is really kind of impressive. He had only two bit parts in films before he was catapulted to the top in "Golden Boy," in 1939. The stories about the making of that film are well known. How nervous he was at the beginning, and how he was almost yanked out of the picture, saved only by the insistence of star Barbara Stanwyck that he be kept in the part. How she coached him, and gave him confidence, so much so that he improved markedly over the course of the filming. Holden always credited her with giving him a career, and he never forgot her kindness, sending her flowers over the years, and always speaking up for her. She reciprocated, and always said how much she loved him.
I recently had the opportunity of watching most of Holden's films, in a period of a few weeks. Seeing an actor's complete body of work in such a short time, gives you a real feel for the progression of their careers and abilities. As I say, I was impressed by how quickly he got a handle on the acting thing, and how assured he was at such a young age. He was a natural, I guess. He had very little stage experience, and majored in chemistry at college. What a jump! But he must have been a quick study. As examples, look at how good he is in "Invisible Stripes" and "Our Town," two early parts. He is also very good in the two westerns he did at that time- "Arizona," with Jean Arthur, in 1940, and "Texas," with Glenn Ford and Claire Trevor, in 1941. He handles himself well with horses and guns, and seems convincing, as does Ford. Incidentally, they started out at the same time, at the same studio, and apparently became good friends, chasing girls together, and doing what young guys do.
The accepted take on Holden's career is that he played mostly bland, innocuous types until his breakthrough part in "Sunset Boulevard." That is half true, I think. For all his "Smiling Jim" parts (his phrase), he also played some fairly dark characters in those early years. His cowboy in "Texas" is pretty amoral; he plays fairly tough in "I Wanted Wings"; he is a good-bad guy in "Streets of Laredo"; and is an outright nasty character in "The Dark Past." I sometimes feel that "Sunset Boulevard" typed him as too much of the detached, cynical guy in his later films. Those qualities were great for the Wilder films, but he ended up playing variations on that character in most of his later films. It did give him a great career, though, and he WAS able to break out of these types, when he was given the opportunity. And he was good at portraying both of these kinds of characters. As with many actors, I think there was more depth to his career than we often remember.
I can think of only one other actor who made it to the top so quickly, and also without much experience. This was Errol Flynn, who was an overnight sensation in "Captain Blood" in 1935, a film that propelled him into superstar ranks. Flynn, like Holden, had had very little acting experience. He made his first film, in Australia, in 1933, then acted for a year or so in England. He had only four films under his belt before he hit the big time. Like Holden, he was a natural, and he picked it up quickly, and gave pretty good performances throughout his career. He never won an Oscar, but he probably should have for "The Sun Also Rises." Amazing that these guys got to the top so quickly, without the years of training and struggling that so many other actors had to endure. It must have caused some resentment towards them by others less fortunate, as perhaps did their good looks. Perhaps becoming famous overnight isn't such a good thing, though, as both Holden and Flynn developed serious drinking problems, and they both looked older than their years when they reached middle age. In fact, drink contributed to both of their deaths. (I think they were in fact friends, or at least friendly, as they saw each other socially over the years. And Holden's wife, Brenda Marshall (called by her real name, Ardis, by her friends) co- starred with Flynn in two films, "The Sea Hawk" and "Footsteps in the Dark." She and Flynn made a good screen couple).
Anyway, check out the film. Holden does a good job for such a young guy, and there are lots of good character actors in it. And some bits by future stars- Alan Ladd, for example. I guess those old movie moguls knew their business. They had pretty good track records in spotting the talent, and some kind of intuition for finding the gems among the untrained actors.