Friday 15 March 2013

Movie Review: Golden Boy (1939)

A passionate drama about conflicting life choices, Golden Boy pits a talent for boxing against a spiritual attachment to music in a battle for one man's soul.

In New York City, crusty boxing manager Tom Moody (Adolphe Menjou) takes a chance on unknown Joe Bonaparte (William Holden). Young, brash, and talented with a violin, Bonaparte proves himself in a series of bouts, and catches the attention of sports writers. Moody is waiting to finalize a divorce before marrying his much younger assistant Lorna Moon (Barbara Stanwyck), but the dashing Bonaparte catches Lorna's eye.

Joe's success in the ring clashes with his love of the violin: boxing damages the hands needed to create magical music, and Joe's dad (Lee J. Cobb) believes that boxing is very much the wrong choice for his son. Lorna is torn between falling in love with Joe, loyalty to Moody, and the once in a lifetime opportunity to make it rich by riding the coattails of a potential champion boxer. Joe's choices are further complicated when big-time mobster Eddie Fuseli (Joseph Calleia) muscles in on Moody, demanding to become Joe's co-owner in return for arranging a quick path to a shot at a glamorous boxing title.

Based on a Clifford Odets play, Golden Boy offers simple but heartfelt lessons in life. The Bonaparte family, complete with Joe's sister Anna and her husband Siggie, argue, love and make-up with genuine fervour. The worlds of boxing and music are presented as mutually exclusive, and Joe's decision is not made any easier by others harbouring self-interest. While the likes of Tom Moody and Eddie Fuseli make no secret that they are out to profit from Joe's boxing exploits, Joe's dad can offer nothing to support his advice except the divine pursuit of a natural talent for music.

Lorna emerges as the most interesting character, a woman fending for herself but suddenly uncertain about what she is looking for from life, from Joe, and from her supposed partner Moody. Lorna finds that she has Joe's ear, as he is as obviously falling in love with her as she is with him, but her ability to control his decisions begins to clash with how much she cares for him, leaving them both emotionally adrift. Lorna's meandering journey to a new self-consciousness is the elegant centrepiece of the film.

Stanwyck portrays Lorna with worldly eyes, a determined mouth, and a smile that hints that she is just smart enough to manipulate, as and when needed, the men in her world. William Holden is a bundle of unconstrained energy as Joe Bonaparte, his first credited role. Not quite convincing neither as a boxer nor as a violinist, Holden's physical presence carries him through, and he is most comfortable simply acting rather than pretending to be a sportsman or musician.

Adolphe Menjou is dependably shifty, finding the creases between shady boxing manager and well-meaning mentor, never losing sight of his own bottom line. Lee J. Cobb is memorable but predictable in a performance made of pure fatherly pathos.

Director Rouben Mamoulian opens up the play, making good use of the cavernous house where Joe, his dad, Anna and Siggie live, and dad's adjacent general store. Mamoulian finds or manufactures interesting backdrops for many scenes, and when the action moves to the ring, the fights are frantic and punishing.

Golden Boy presents a clear choice between short-term acclaim and long-term pleasure. Joe will only be able to move ahead once he shuts out the distractions and internalizes the distinction between having a lot of money and being truly rich.

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