April 17th, 2018 marked William Holden’s centenary. 100 years! His birthplace O’Fallon, Illinois celebrated him accordingly, he was April’s Star of The Month on TCM, and Holden 100 was created by Diana of Flickin’ Out to commemorate our golden boy’s golden year. I couldn’t put up my tribute post on his big day, but since Holden Month is drawing to a close today, I’m sending him off with a look at three of his films. William Holden artfully portrayed cynics who were charismatic even in their misdeeds. I decided to pay tribute to three of his most noble and selfless characters in two distinct stages of his career.
Invisible Stripes (1939)
In 1939, Bill made his debut in Golden Boy. With the help of costar Barbara Stanwyck, he was able to prove himself a capable performer to Columbia Pictures, since the studio was seriously starting to doubt his youth and inexperience. Bill always credited Stanywck for saving his career.
Let’s wipe the tears and move on.
But there was another film released in 1939 that is overshadowed when looking at William Holden’s career. Invisible Stripes was his second major film, a typical Warner Brothers crime drama on the surface. George Raft plays an ex-con, Cliff Taylor, who struggles to adjust to life following prison. Cliff is always in his prison uniform to the people outside (invisible stripes). His past as an ex-con is inescapable: he can’t hold down a job at all, so it’s no surprise when he returns to a life of crime. It’s an incredibly bleak outlook but one that indicts the society, not Cliff or men like him who sincerely make an effort to reintegrate themselves.
Invisible Stripes makes for a very compelling drama, but Raft is not this film’s heart and soul. That honor goes to William Holden as Cliff’s younger brother, Tim.
Tim is an angry young man, frustrated by life’s meager offerings. Here’s Bill, baby faced and furious. There’s a tension in Tim’s face and body; all of him is clenched with indignation at how unfair life is. He is the typical impetuous youth, but he’s got a sincere gripe. “Maybe it’s better to blow your top and take what you want.” And maybe it is when the world is designed to prevent you from climbing that ladder of opportunity and wealth.
Tim is a forceful personality, but there’s a lot of sensitivity shimmering around the edges of his fury. When he’s with his fiance Peggy (Jane Bryan), she tells him about the way she cried over a picture in a shop. Tim has never cried in his life, not even when his father was killed, but he understands how Peggy was moved to tears.
“It’s kinda like a hurt inside. That’s the way I feel when I look at you. You’re so beautiful, I’m afraid I’m gonna cry.”
What kind of poetry is this from a hothead? He recognizes an ache from within, can only explain it in the simplest way he knows how. “It’s kinda like a hurt inside” is a beautiful line, but the way Bill says it makes you believe him, makes you feel it too. And that ache is etched across Tim’s face too.
Tim’s love for Peggy makes him selfless. He is not desperate for money and a better life only for himself.
“Tell me what you’d do if you had a guy with guts enough to give you the world.”
“I’d give her the world if I could only get my hands on it.”
You see, his longing is like a hurt inside, and it turns to fury when it spills out of him. I’ve only seen this film twice, but I’m glad my second viewing made me rethink it as just a run of the mill gangster movie. Tim is its soul – tough and bruised, but not broken. And it’s worth it to see early flashes of brilliance from an iconic actor just starting out.
Born Yesterday (1950)
Now to jump ahead 11 years. 1950 would prove to be a banner year for Bill, after a decade of roles that were, by his own admission, underwhelming and mediocre. That’s one of the things I find fascinating about his career. His big break came early, but his career stalled before another break revitalized it. Director Billy Wilder was one of his most ardent fans, and he cast Bill in one of the most famous films of both their careers: Sunset Boulevard. Unlike Invisible Stripes, Born Yesterday is the “other” film from 1950 in no trouble of being overshadowed.
Judy Holliday won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Billie Dawn, the ditzy girlfriend of crass tycoon Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford). Billie is clueless about Harry’s shady business deals and in general. Now that Harry is worming his way into politics, he needs Billie to transform into a cultured woman. He hires journalist Paul Verrall for the job.
Paul is a little too successful. Billie is not only book smart thanks to him; once she’s aware of Harry’s corruption, she refuses to be a pawn in his schemes.
Born Yesterday is a remarkable film without being showy about it. Billie is an eager learner and Paul is an eager teacher. Their romance isn’t contrived in the slightest because he’s a better man than Harry. Paul is noble. His mission to educate Billie isn’t his only one.
“I want everyone to be smart, as smart as they can be. A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.”
Something else I love about this film is how Paul doesn’t receive the credit for Billie’s newfound wisdom. He’s more than willing to just support her. William Holden lets Judy Holliday soak up all the spotlight without being cast in shadow himself.
Executive Suite (1954)
Bill leads an impressive ensemble cast in this boardroom drama. In my view, this film reflected his changing fortune. That he could command top billing among a roster of industry greats (including veterans Fredric March and Barbara Stanwyck) is really impressive. Also, in 1954, Bill costarred in Sabrina and The Country Girl, where he was billed third. (He got third billing in Born Yesterday too). All of that is simply to say that he was both a leading man and a supporting actor at the height of his career. Again, his presence wasn’t at all diminished when the leads were in the spotlight.
Executive Suite is an interesting film because the main character is a furniture company. Avery Bullard was the longtime president of Tredway corporation until his sudden death – he collapsed from a stroke on the sidewalk right outside Tredway’s skyscraper. George Caswell (Louis Calhern) witnesses Bullard’s death from one of the top floors but he doesn’t alert anyone. Caswell’s motive is driven entirely by greed; his only concern with Bullard’s death is how it affects the stock prices. George Caswell is just the first callous opportunist we meet.
Once Bullard’s death is known, Tredway is thrown into chaos as a new president will need to be instated. Vice president Loren Shaw (Fredric March) will do whatever it takes to replace Bullard, even resorting to blackmail. All he’s concerned with is the bottom line. He and Caswell also strike up a deal to line Caswell’s pockets.
It’s clear that Shaw isn’t fit to run Tredway, but who can challenge him? Enter McDonald Walling (Holden), vice president of Tredway’s Design and Development.
Walling is an idealist. He cares about people and furniture (yes, really). Shaw has no interest in either. For the last couple of years, Tredway has been manufacturing shoddy products, best demonstrated by Don literally ripping off the leg of a table during the boardroom meeting in the film’s third act. It is a thrilling moment, but it doesn’t overwhelm Walling’s impassioned speech. You’ve really got to hand it to William Holden; he can throw a table across the room and still his words are more vivid. Everyone has gathered to vote on the new president and Walling is determined to win those votes over Shaw.
Throughout the film, Walling displayed his idealism quietly, and now it charges forward. Don is the best man to lead Tredway because he’s not motivated by self interest or the bottom line. He believes in the company and its potential for growth.
“The force behind a great company has to be more than the pride of one man. It has to be the pride of thousands. You can’t make men work for money alone, you starve their souls when you try it. And you can starve a company to death the same way.”
Executive Suite is one of my favorite films and I love William Holden as the tireless idealist. McDonald Walling, Paul Verrall, and Lincoln Bond sit right between the most cynical and morally gray Holden characters in Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17 (1953), and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).
Tim, Paul, and McDonald are all fighting for something: a chance to start a new life, for knowledge to prevail over ignorance, and for vision and integrity.
I wanted to look at two of the less acclaimed titles in his filmography (Invisible Stripes and Executive Suite), and to reacquaint myself with him as a beginner and compare that to the established industry professional. William Holden aged onscreen; his fresh face eventually became grizzled. He earned the wrinkles he had always wanted. In his youth, he just looked so young; he radiated vitality. He looked older in his 50s and 60s, and that vigor was replaced by weariness.
Anjelica Jade Bastién illuminated his aging process eloquently in her excellent list of his 10 essential films.
There is always so much to say about William Holden. I loved him first as a goofy teenager who didn’t quite realize the extent of his importance onscreen. The more films I watch, the more I’m reminded why he is my favorite actor and one of the greatest.
Here’s to you, Golden Boy. You truly were lit from within.