Golden Boy (1939): Clifford Odets Morality Tale Starring William Holden in Stunning Performance

Produced by William Perlberg and directed by Rouben Mamoulian, the sports melodrama “Golden Boy” is the movie that catapulted the young William Holden, only 21 at the time, to major stardom overnight.

Mamoulian had to work really hard to get Columbia head Harry Cohn to agree with his casting choice of Holden, then an unknown actor.

In this compromised version of Clifford Odets’ famous impassioned play, which originated in New York by the noted Group Theater, scripters Lewis Meltzer, Daniel Taradash, Sarah V. Mason, and Victor Heerman, softened the narrative, and the studio imposed a senseless happy ending.

Holden plays Joe Bonaparte, the sensitive and handsome violinist turned prizefighter lured by fame and money. The role of Lorna Moon was built up to be large enough for Barbara Stanwyck, who was a bigger star than Holden at the time. As Lorna, Stanwyck shines in portraying “the dame from Newark,” who first hopes to marry her boss, the fight manager, before falling inlove with the nave and awkward Bonaparte.

Despite the tacked-upon happy ending, the movie still maintains the dramatic power and narrative energy of Odets’ original play. Like most of Odets’ work (for stage and screen), “Golden Boy” features his recurrent them of how moral integrity and pure aesthetics get corrupted in the “real world” by business considerations.

The play and the movie have not withstood well the test of time, and Golden Boy now seems as a naively idealistic morality play about the inherent conflict between art and commerce,

The supporting cast is as good as the two leads. Lee J. Cobb as Joe’s loving Italian father, Sam Levene as his taxi-driver brother-in-law,

Joseph Calleia as the slimy gangster and crass racketeer out to corrupt Joe, and Adolph Menjou as the hard-bitten prizefight manager, all contribute to a highly enjoyable film whose grim mood that benefits from the black-and-white cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca and Karl Freund and particularly score by Victor Young, which was nominated for an Oscar.

The movie opened at New York’s Radio City Music Hall on September 15, 1939. Initially, the reviews to the film were mixed, possibly due to the fact that 1939 is considered to be the best year in the history of the film industry, which saw such chestnuts as “Gone With the Wind,” Dark Victory,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” The Women,” and “Ninotchka,” among others.

Holden would have become a major star after this picture, had he not gone to the Army for four years. As it turns out, he became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 1950s.

Nonetheless, “Golden Boy” influenced countless of sports-boxing films featuring an initially honest hero, often an artist or writer, who gets corrupted by his manager and the sports world.


Lorna Moon (Barbara Stanwyck)
Tom Moody (Adolphe Menjou)
Joe Bonaparte (William Holden)
Mr. Bonaparte (Lee J. Cobb)
Eddie Fuseli (Joseph Calleia)
Siggie (Sam Levene)
Roxy Lewis (Edward S. Brophy)
Anna (Beatrice Blinn)
Mr. Carp (William H. Strauss)
Borneo (Don Beddoe)
Boxer (Frank Jenks)
Newspaperman (Charles Halton)

Oscar Alert

Golden Boy was nominated for one Oscar:

Original Score for Victory Young.

But the winner was Victor Stothart for the MGM-Judy Garland fable, “The Wizard of Oz.”