It seems that there’s always a boxing movie or two in theatres. At the moment, we have Hands of Stone, with Robert De Niro playing not a boxer (see Raging Bull) but the trainer of real-life boxer Roberto Duran. Last year there was Creed, with Sylvester Stallone graduating from being Rocky the prize-fighter to Rocky the trainer of his former opponent’s son. Also last year, Jake Gyllenhaal bulked up to play a boxer in Southpaw. It was not so long ago that Christian Bale won an Oscar for The Fighter (which also featured Mark Wahlberg), while Russell Crowe impersonated boxer James Braddock in Cinderella Man. Then there are oldies like Body and Soul (1947); Kirk Douglas achieved stardom by playing the corruptible Midge Kelly in the 1949 boxing film, Champion, which was producer Stanley Kramer’s first big Hollywood achievement.
But I’m here to write about the granddaddy of them all, 1939’s Golden Boy, based on a Broadway hit drama by Clifford Odets, who knew a great deal about downtrodden lives in New York City during the Depression era. The premise, approached with high seriousness on the screen, sounds almost comic in the telling: a young man with a talent for boxing can’t decide whether or not he’d really rather be playing the violin. Several major characters are determined to help him make up his mind. On the side of music and an impoverished but noble life in the arts is Joe Bonaparte’s Italian immigrant papa (Lee J. Cobb), who agrees with Joe’s sentiment that “a prizefight is an insult to a man’s soul.” The other point of view is represented by Joe’s new manager, Tom Moody (Adolphe Menjou), along with Moody’s fiancée, a self-styled “dame from Newark” played with gusto by Barbara Stanwyck. These two are quick to point out that success in the ring can lead to money and respect . . . not to mention the possibility of Stanwyck’s favors.
The pivotal role of Joe Bonaparte -- who’s got to look convincing both punching out opponents in the ring and gently fiddling Brahms’ Cradle Song (“Lullaby and good night . . “) in his father’s living room -- was won by a Hollywood newcomer named William Holden. In a word, he is sensational. The part calls for him to have a mean streak, as well as a side that’s profoundly gentle, and he manages to persuade us that this character contains both possibilities. The cast is also full of colorful stage types: a dapper gangster (Joseph Calleia); a Jewish socialist buddy of his father (William H. Strauss); Joe’s giggly married sister (Beatrice Blinn) and her always-hustling spouse (Sam Levene). Directing the film is a Broadway and Hollywood legend, Rouben Mamoulian. Mamoulian’s illustrious career included the stage premieres of Porgy and Bess (1935), Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945). As a movie director, he was responsible for 1929’s Applause. This early musical, starring Helen Morgan, was a landmark in the development of modern camera and sound technologies. The last film Mamoulian directed was also a musical, 1957’s Silk Stockings, starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. (He also was fired from, or resigned from, some other notable films: 1944’s Laura, 1959’s film version of Porgy and Bess, and the infamous Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton production of Cleopatra).
Mamoulian was born in Tiflis (now Tibilisi), Georgia, in 1897, when it was still part of the Russian Empire. He survived until 1987, when he died at age 90. I visited him in his Beverly Hills home circa 1978. The place was crawling with cats . . . but that’s a subject for another day.