Release Date(s)1939 (October 7, 2022)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: F
[Editor’s Note: This is a Region Free Blu-ray release.]
Golden Boy is a prime example of what happens when a serious artistic work meets the commercialized needs of popular filmmaking. It’s an adaptation of the darkly cautionary fable by Clifford Odets, sanitized through the lens of Production Code-era Hollywood. When Odets wrote the play in 1937, he had recently had his own Barton Fink-style experience writing for Paramount Pictures. (Joel and Ethan Coen loosely based the character of Fink on Odets.) While he did so to help provide funding for his work in the theatre, it still meant that he had to navigate the conflict between his own socially conscious artistic integrity and the pragmatic business side of Hollywood. That clash became the primary theme of Golden Boy, where an artistically gifted young man is torn between his desire to make music, and the siren call of the money that he can make by selling his body to the professional boxing world. Ironically enough, that theme was literalized during the production of director Rouben Mamoulian’s 1939 film adaptation, with Odets’ pessimistic take on the story ultimately losing out to the need for a traditional Hollywood happy ending.
Unsurprisingly, a bevy of screenwriters worked on Golden Boy, with the final script being credited to Lewis Meltzer, Daniel Taradash, Sarah Y. Mason, and Victor Heerman. In their version, Joe Bonaparte (an impossibly young-looking William Holden) is a talented violinist who needs money, so against the wishes of his father (a hammy Lee J. Cobb), he turns to boxing manager Tom Moody (Adolph Menjou) to get him into the ring. When Joe starts to have doubts about what he’s doing, Moody uses his own girlfriend Lorna (Barbara Stanwyck) to seduce Bonaparte back into the fold. Joe faces further seduction when a gangster (Joseph Calleila) offers him even bigger money, and so while he finds greater success, he’s also dragged deeper and deeper into the seedy and violent side of the boxing milieu. It takes a tragedy to wake him up to what he’s become, providing a glimmer of hope for a better future.
Odets had ended his play on an even more tragic note, with Joe and Lorna dying in an automobile accident. It’s hardly even a spoiler to say that the film ends quite differently, as there was no way that the original ending would ever have made it to the screen in 1939. Yet despite the fact that the overall tone of the film is softened compared to the play, the changes didn’t fundamentally alter the nature of the story. The core theme of the collision between artistic integrity and materialism still rings through loud and clear. The only real difference is that Odets punished his characters for the poor decisions that they made, while the film offers them a second chance. That’s not necessarily a bad alteration of the material. Odets presented the problem, while Mamoulian offers a solution. It’s true that the pat ending of the film version of Golden Boy does feel rather abrupt and perhaps a bit contrived, but that’s just Hollywood convention, and it’s still nice to be shown a ray of light after the darkness that preceded it. It’s certainly appropriate to show the tragedy of the human condition, but it’s not necessarily wrong to allow people to learn from their mistakes, either.
Cinematographers Karl Freund and Nick Musuraca shot Golden Boy on 35 mm film with spherical lenses, framed at the Academy aperture of 1.37:1 for its theatrical release. Via Vision describes the master that Sony supplied for this version as a “new 2K scan,” but there’s no other information available regarding the source elements that were used. If it wasn’t the original camera negative, then it was high-quality secondary element, because this is a generally beautiful presentation of the film. The image is nicely detailed, with the fabrics in the costumes being particularly well-resolved. The grain is even throughout. There are just a few places where lower-quality dupe footage was used, like in the stretch between 47:23 and 49:34. Those sections are significantly softer and less detailed, and in one case there’s some heavy damage toward the end. Aside from those few stretches, the damage is limited to just occasional light scratches. Grayscale, contrast, and black levels are all very good. It’s not perfect, but considering that Golden Boy has only been available on DVD prior to this point, it’s still a huge upgrade.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono LPCM, with optional English subtitles. There’s some background hiss audible, but everything is otherwise clean, and the dialogue is clear. The schmaltzy though Oscar-nominated score from Victor Young sounds fine here.
Via Vision’s Region-Free Blu-ray release of Golden Boy is #156 in their Imprint line. It comes with a Limited Edition slipcase featuring artwork based upon one of the theatrical posters, and an insert based upon a different poster design. There are no extras included, not even a trailer. While that’s certainly disappointing, it doesn’t change the fact that Golden Boy looks golden indeed in this high-definition debut, and that’s the most important thing.
- Stephen Bjork