Wild Boys of the Road (1933) William Wellman


Despite an upbeat ending Wild Boys of the Road is one of the darkest, bleakest films of the depression era. William Wellman already had a reputation for going straight for the jugular, as he did in his previous film, Heroes for Sale. He did not beat around the bush. While films like Gold Diggers of 1933 dealt with the Great Depression, it was mostly light hearted and escapist. You get no such relief in this 1933 hard core pre-code drama. 

Living through The Great Depression was tough for many including the thousands and thousands of dispossessed youngsters riding boxcars and living in shantytowns. Wellman, or as he was known “Wild Bill” Wellman was a tough son of a bitch, yet he worked within the studio system fighting for good scripts. Legend has it he once dumped a trunk load of manure onto a studio bosses desk along with a script that he felt the same way about (1).

    The film opens up on a light note with young Eddie Smith (Frankie Darrow) and his friend Tommy (Edwin Phillips) going to a high school dance with their girls. At first, it sort of feels like we could be in Carvel with Andy Hardy and his friends. However, the signs soon point to a different road. Tommy needs to borrow the 75 cents entrance fee because he doesn’t have the money; his mother being unable to find a job. Tommy is even thinking about quitting school to find a job himself. Eddie tells him to wait until he talks to his Dad about helping them out, but when he gets home, it is only to find out that his father has been laid off from his own job at the factory. Eddie sells his jalopy to help with the family finances but after two months, his Dad is still out of work and the rent is two months overdue, Eddie and Tommy soon decide to leave home. It’s best that way in order to relieve some of the burden on their families. They head to Chicago to find jobs.wellmanwildboys1

   The boys hop a boxcar where they meet Sally (Dorothy Coonan), a young girl also on her way to Chicago to live with her Aunt. As they ride the rails, more kids join them. Arriving in Chicago, they are unceremoniously greeted by the police and railroad guards with the power to decide who can stay who cannot. They allow Sally and the boys to stay since she is going to live with her Aunt. Other kids are turned away; there are no jobs in Chicago either. Sally’s Aunt, turns out to be a Madame running a Brothel. She is happy to see them, however soon after they arrive, the place is raided by the police and the thresome quickly escape heading back to the railroad yards and on to another town. On the road, their hardships mount, as does the number of kids riding the rails. One of the girls, Grace (Rochelle Hudson) is raped by a railroad worker (a very young Ward Bond). During an escape from the railroad goons, Tommy falls, his leg is crushed by an oncoming train and it has to be amputated by a kindly doctor.  They are run out of another town after a free for all brawl with the police. They soon end up in New York where Eddie feels he can get a job and surprisingly does. Only thing is he needs three dollars for a uniform, which he does not have. Two suspicious men offer Eddie five dollars, to do them a favor. He has to take an envelope over to the ticket seller at the movie theater across the street. The woman, they say, will give him a package, which he will bring back to the men. Overjoyed at the easy money, Eddie takes the letter over which contains a demand for money. Seeing two policemen nearby, the woman screams for help. Eddie ducks into the movie theater and the cops chase after him. Inside the theater, James Cagney is on screen in Footlight’s Parade (another Warner’s depression film though on a much lighter note) as the police apprehend Eddie, Tommy and Sally. The soon are standing before a judge in court who threatens them with jail time. However, after a passionate speech from Eddie the judge offers to help get them jobs if they promise that once they have enough money they will go back to their families.

   Despite some outdated dialogue and an ending that seems somewhat out of place, Wild Boys of the Road is an agonizing look at the plight of America’s young homeless during the Depression, and the lack of government empathy reflected by then President Hoover’s failed approach to ending the Depression. His belief that aiding the average U.S. citizen would only make them lazy and depend more  and more on government (2). 

  wellmanwb2  The film’s ending is about the only ray of hope in the movie, though to some extent it dilutes everything that came before. The original 1933 review from the New York Times (3) points out “Its tragedy has been over sentimentalized, its drama is mostly melodrama and, by endowing it with a happy ending, the producers have robbed it of its values as a social challenge.”  The Times critic, Frank S. Nugent blames Wellman for the failure. While I believe Nugent is partially correct about the ending, I disagee the film is robbed of its values as a social challenge. There are a couple of points to make about the ending. The kindly judge, whose offer to get the kids jobs, symbolizes the new optimism that was brought on by Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Under Franklin, the government was now creating new jobs and putting people back to work. Secondly, the almost cringe like feeling you get when Eddie somersaults outside the courthouse is probably the most awkward scene about the ending. Yet Eddie’s elation, that good gosh golly everything is going to be alright, is put slightly off kilter when after the somersault he stands face to face with Tommy, and he realizes, for him no matter what, life will never be quite the same. It is a short moment that is passed over quickly as the three kids happily jump into the car as the film ends. So is the ending a failure, as the New York Times critic said? Did the studio cop out for a happy ending? Well, yes they did. According to the Goatdog’s Movies blog, Jack Warner changed the ending himself which originally had Eddie going to a juvenile reformatory and Sally getting ten months in prison. (I do find it odd that Eddie’s end up in a reformatory and Sally in prison. They were both kids, why was Sally sent to prison, and what happened to Tommy?). As the film stands the ending does come off as a tacked on happy ending taking away from the power of all that preceded for the past sixty minutes or so. Wellman probably did the best he could under the forced circumstances.  As it is, and unlike 1969’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? another bleak dark vision of the Great Depression that stayed true to its downbeat course, the ending of Wild Boys of the Road did not stay true to its convictions. It gave hope to the public of its day, the sun will shine tomorrow, and maybe they needed that.

  wildboys5Wellman was no stranger to films with social issues. Gangsters in The Public Enemy, returning vets and drug addiction in Heroes for Sale, mob rule and lynching in The Ox-Bow Incident and child welfare in Night Nurse. Despite Wellman’s anti-authority outlook in life, he worked well within the studio system mixing genres, such as screwball comedy (Nothing Sacred),  westerns (Buffalo Bill), war (Battleground) and adventure (Beau Geste). Of all the genres, Wellman always returned to war and aviation themed films. A World War I aviator, first for the French and later for the U.S., he brought a tough realistic point of view to films like Wings (the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture). Wellman would return to aviation themed films late in his career with two John Wayne starring films Island in the Sky and  The High and the Mighty, and in his final film, Lafayette Escadrille.  Wild Boys of the Road, and it should really read Wild Boys and Girls of the Road,  like most of Wellman’s films of this period, as Dave Kehr (4) points out, has an in your face quality that will remind you of Sam Fuller’s work some years later.

 wildboys22While the film is erratic in its brilliance, there are scenes that are truly disturbing and unsettling. One scene shows the young homeless boys and girls fighting with the police as they try to hold onto their sewer city “home.” Wellman, always on the side of the underdog, presents the police as symbols of an autocratic system. By using an excellent combination of close-ups and editing, the scene in which Tommy’s leg is crushed is both brutal and affectively moving. The authenticity of the boxcar and railroad yards scene,s filmed on location, certainly adds to the film’s realism. Wild Boys of the Road is still a strong look at the depression, the forced lawlessness, the poverty and the victimization of youth. The film gives you a strong punch in the gut that you will soon not forget.

One of the films more tongue in cheek scenes has young Eddie whistling, We’re in the Money as he walks away from his empty garage after selling his jalopy to help his family financially. The song, of course, was from Gold Diggers of 1933 which came out only three months earlier than Wild Boys of the Road.

The cast led by Frankie Darro, Edwin Phillips, Dorothy Coonan and Rochelle Hudson all give good  performances. Darro, never seemed to out grow juvenile roles, though his career lasted a long time appearing in films like “A Day at the Races, Saratoga, The Babe Ruth Story and such serials as Junior G-Men of the Air and The Phantom Empire  Dorothy Coonan, who appeared in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 as a chorus girl caught the eye of William Wellman and would soon become the fourth and final Mrs. William Wellman. The marriage would produce seven children. Also in the film are the fine character actors Sterling Holloway, Grant Mitchell and Minna Gombell.

Wild Boys of the Road was not a financial success and much like today’s audiences, the public of 1933 seemed to prefer their movies to be of a lighter fare.




Sources: (1) Los Angeles Times – William Wellman: tough taskmaster for tough times

                    Sam Adams – 3/22/09

               (2) Great Depression and Herbert Hoover – Donald J. Mabry

               (3) Wild Boys of the Road – New York Times  9/22/33 

               (4) On the William Wellman Depression Express – Dave Kehr – New York

                    Times 3/20/09


7 comments on “Wild Boys of the Road (1933) William Wellman

  1. Judy says:

    This is another one I really want to see, after seeing Frankie Darro in ‘The Mayor of Hell’ – it sounds like powerful stuff from your description despite the cop-out at the ending. I will have to wait until a bit later in the year to get the new Wellman box set (only available on import in the UK) and will look forward to seeing this then.


  2. R. D. Finch says:

    John, another great review. I watched this on TCM last week, right after “Midnight Mary” and “Heroes for Sale,” and I would say that I liked it the best of the three. That incongruous ending does seem to come from out of the blue, especially after Eddie’s resigned and impassioned speech to the judge about nobody really caring for the plight of the homeless kids like himself. That speech was very well delivered by young Darro. It sounded realistic and not like speechifying at all. As the central character, I thought Darro was superb. He was very low-key and charming, and admirable without being heroic in his defense of his and the other kids’ rights in the face of heartless authoritarianism. I observed his physical agility when he clearly did his own stunts hopping on the freight trains. When he raced down the alley and in one swift move leapt into the trash can, I was amazed because it actually rocked a bit, indicating it wasn’t anchored to the ground so it wouldn’t tip over. At the end when he did what practically amounted to a gymnastics routine and then spun around and around on his head, my jaw nearly dropped. (I guess I liked this part better than you did; I’d already accepted the artificial ending and just went with it.) Did you notice the poster for FDR’s NRA behind the judge’s head? A plug for the New Deal and some studio-imposed hope for the future, I guess. Besides “We’re in the Money,” I thought I heard “Pettin’ in the Park” on the soundtrack at one point, I believe after they were thrown out of the dance and were driving around–to the park?


  3. John Greco says:

    Judy – Hopefully, you get the chance to see this film. I know you’re interested in depression era films and this one is essential.

    R.D. – You are right, that was “Pettin in the Park” you heard. I guess Warner’s was saving money. I recorded most of the Wellman films that night. I watched “Midnight Mary” and it was decent, certainly not as good as “Wild Boys.” Still have to watch “Heroes for Sale” and “Frisco Jenny.” Darro was certainly agile. I meant to say something about that leap he did in the trash can, it was amazing! Did you happen to watch the documentary on Wellman that was part of “The Men Who Made the Movies” series. He was an interesting character. As a former World War I pilot, he performed one of his own stunts in his first film, “Wings”, when the stunt man could not do it. It required that when landing, the plane was to flip over! Wellman did it and walked away with minor scratches.


  4. Bill says:

    Wild Boys of the Road is certainly a grim reminder of the Great Depression. I remember my Grandfather telling me he lost his job in 1931 (he was 32 years old with a wife and 3 small sons), then had his radio repossessed and then lost his house. I really felt the history when watching this film. Thanks for the excellent review.


  5. John Greco says:


    Thanks for your thoughts on what your family went through. My father was a young man during the depression and I remember him telling me that one of his brothers went to work on one of the government works programs. Again, thanks for your comments.


  6. After reading through the article, I feel that I really need more information on the topic. Could you share some more resources ?


  7. John Greco says:

    There is a very good book on the films of the depression called “We’re in the Money” written back in the 1970’s but is still in print today. There is also a documentary, that actually played in movie theaters back in the mid 70’s called “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime”, which is an excellent source of Depression era material. I remember clips including scenes of the stock market crash, dance marathons, breadlines and the new deal. Plus there are a lot of clips from movies like “Little Caesar.”, “Gold Diggers of 1993” and many others.


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