Billed as a romantic comedy, The Golden Boys boasts a great cast, unusual setting (1905 Cape Cod), and cute tagline: “Three salty dogs seek one spicy kitten.” But this tale of three codgery sea captains looking for a wife is not all that romantic, or especially comic. It is, for the most part, a geriatric bromance working out all the usual themes of male bonding and anxieties about women.
Zeb (David Carradine), Perez (Bruce Dern), and Jerry (Rip Torn) are “seafaring men of steady habits.” When they decide their longtime system of assigning chores has become tedious, Perez proposes that one of them marry and take the other two in as boarders. As abhorrent as the prospect sounds, they agree that one should be sacrificed for the benefit of the group. Their coin toss designates Jerry, which may be providential, as whose two previous marriages make it likely he knows how to “handle” a wife. He suggests in turn that his experience only means knows “what it is to be managed by a wife.” Dismissing any prospects from within their own community, namely Melissy (Angelica Torn), who’s overtly interested in Perez and talks too much, they place an ad for a mail order bride, advising Jerry that he’s got to “make ’em think yer a good catch.”
All this is nonsensical, of course, as the men reject the obvious option of simply hiring a housekeeper. They insist that no professional would be able to please all three of them, and show discomfort at the idea of a woman earning her way in the world (this retro thinking is underlined when Zeb offers to loan young Elsie [Christy Scott Cashman] money rather than have her take a job as a teacher). It’s no small point that they don’t want to have to pay a woman for her work. And besides, Captain Jerry seeks to reap some reward for his troubles, insisting, “I ain’t gonna marry a skeleton and crawl into bed with a bag o’ bones.”
When the pretty and practical widow Martha Snow (Mariel Hemmingway) arrives, the love story progresses exactly as we expect, with Jerry pleasantly surprised but still afraid to marry. Perez is clearly smitten and anxious to step into Jerry’s place and the usually cool Zeb is suddenly befuddled, struck, he says, by Martha’s “good sense.” The men undertake to share their potentially good fortune, using too many fishing metaphors and conjuring their own version of reason.
The fishing talk becomes tiresome early. (“Gimme yer flipper,” the men like to say, as they also tend to call one another “wily coot!”) Along these same lines, they have to resolve their own domestic hierarchy: though they’re all captains, really, Zeb is the leader, with Perez the first mate and poor Jerry the begrudging steward. Although Zeb and Perez make him the butt of their jokes, they are also dependent on Jerry, as he has, before Martha’s advent, essentially been the wife — so devoted that he accepts his role as “a lamb for the sacrifice” (as he’s named in the first chapter of Joseph C. Lincoln’s 1915 book, on which the film is based). The lines are messier when Zeb and Perez fall for Martha and begin to worry about their own potential betrayal of a mate (Zeb laments that he’s “two-timing Jerry”). No surprise, such compunction doesn’t last too long. This bromance has limits, as Zeb and Perez are not nearly so willing to sacrifice their own desires to Jerry’s as he was willing to do for theirs.