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.
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).
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.
Wellman 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.
While 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