The early years of sound in the 1930’s, those pre-code years, were William Wellman’s most inspired and also his most productive. He was a man who dived into the modern age of sound filmmaking and the mechanical age. An aviator in World War I, he continued on with his love affair for airplanes throughout his career, from “Wings” to “Island in the Sky,” “The High and the Mighty” up to his final film, “Lafayette Escadrille.” Wellman’s work from this period also addressed the Great Depression head on with serious works like “Heroes for Sale” and “Wild Boys of the Road.” Like many film pioneers in the early days, Wellman worked fast and he worked best when he had actors who kept up with his speed, performers like Cagney, Stanwyck, Lombard and Frankie Darro. Later in his career his films developed a slower pace and the actors he worked with reflected that too e.g.; Henry Fonda in “The Ox-Bow Incident” and Robert Mitchum in “Track of the Cat.” Continue reading
I always thought “His Girl Friday” was one of the most acidic screwball comedies to ever hit the screen until I watched “Nothing Sacred.” The cup runneth over in this sharply written film and it isn’t with love. For this you can thank Ben Hecht who co-wrote the original source material for the prior film, the Broadway hit, “The Front Page” and was the only credited writer for the latter (Producer David O’Selznick handed Hecht’s script over to George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, Dorothy Parker and Ring Lardner Jr. among others. Despite all these other hands in the pot, Hecht’s sour look remained intact). Hecht may be more the auteur of these two films than either of the two directors. Both are driven by aggressive, cynical newspaper reporters who will exploit and outright lie to sell newspapers and make a buck for themselves. If anything stops “Nothing Sacred” from being a full blown masterpiece of prickly comedy, it has to do with two components. The first, the part of Wally Cook, the cynical newspaper reporter screams out for Cary Grant. Instead, here we have Fredric March. Now, it’s not that March is bad, he’s not. He just seems like he is wound up a little bit too tight for the role. He cannot let himself let loose like Grant would have. The second factor is the treatment of the film’s black characters which I will get into in more detail a little further on.
For Ben Hecht, it not just the newspaper reporters who are nasty, evil and corrupt, it’s the entire cast! Carol Lombard’s Hazel Flagg is an unscrupulous liar willing to carry on a charade just so she can get out of her hick New England town and visit New York City. The folks from Warsaw Vermont, Hazel’s small hometown are monosyllable, unwelcoming and suspicious of outsiders. Even the kids are nasty; one youngster (Billy Barty) bites Wally on his leg while others pelt him with stones after he arrives in town inquiring about the unfortunate Hazel Flagg.
I should talk a little about the plot before going any further. As I said, Lombard plays Hazel Flagg, a small town girl from Warsaw, Vermont, where people don’t take kindly to strangers, especially slick New York City newspaper reporters. Factory worker Hazel was misdiagnosed by her doctor (Charles Winninger) who informed her she was going to die due to exposure from radiation poisoning at the factory. Her fellow co-workers collected $200 dollars to send Hazel on her dream trip to see New York before she dies. However, just before she is about to leave, she receives even worst news from her doctor. You see, he made a mistake, she’s going to live! Upset, she cries out “It’s kind of startling to be brought to life twice…and both times in Warsaw!” Continue reading
Violence against women, alcoholism, child abuse, racy dialogue, gangsters, lust driven interns, bootlegging and sex – “Night Nurse”, a 1932 William Wellman melodrama, has it all. You never have seen so much vice tossed and mixed into one 75-minute cinematic festival of sin. In addition, it stars two of the sexiest, talented and biggest stars of the pre-code era, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell. If you add in a young virile, though nasty Clark Gable, you cannot ask for more.
Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) wants to be a nurse and is at first turned down by the old biddy nurse in charge because she lacks the required education. You see Lora had to quit school to help out with her family. Dejected and on her way out of the hospital, a gentlemen entering accidently knocks her bag out of her hand. Well, it turns out the man is Dr. Bell (Charles Wininger) head of the hospital. To make amends, for dropping the contents of her bag all over the floor, and staring at her legs as he picks up the dropped items placing them back in her bag, he arranges with the nasty head nurse, now all smiles, apologetic and under the assumption Lora knows Dr. Bell, for Lora to start her training on the night shift. She is set up to share a room with fellow nurse the jaded gum chewing Maloney (Joan Blondell). Soon the two are going out partying and undressing together, even sharing a bed after being caught coming in after curfew by the old biddy nurse. On a more serious note, Lora get some real medical emergency education assisting doctors in surgery, sometime successfully and well sometimes not so much. One night, while on duty in comes Mortie, (Ben Lyons), a bootlegger we soon find out, with a bullet wound. Bound by duty to report all bullet injuries to the police, Mortie, who deep down is a swell guy, convinces her not to do so.
Upon graduating, both Lora and Maloney get jobs as private nurses for a well to do family with Lora as the night nurse and Maloney taking the day shift. Their main responsibilities are taking care of two young children, whose father is dead and whose mother is too busy drinking and partying to care of them. The kids are heirs to a large fortune and this is where Nick, the Chauffeur (Clark Gable), enters the scene. Nick is a low life who is arranging, along with a crooked doctor in on the plot, to starve the children to death, marry the widow mother, and get access to the kids’ trust fund. Of course, our heroine, discovered what Nick is up too and with the help of bootlegger Mortie manages to save the day and the kids but only after being viciously beaten by Nick and giving a blood transfusion to save one of the malnourished young girls.
“Night Nurse” was one of the first of the pre-code films released on home video under the Forbidden Hollywood banner back in the 1990’s. Back in those days, the VHS series was hosted and introduced by Leonard Maltin.
The film is dated in many respects but there is much to keep you interested. Racy wild dialogue like when a young intern tells nurses Stanwyck and Blondell that they can’t show him anything he has not just seen in a delivery room and the children’s mother wildly yelling out at one point “I’m a dipsomaniac and I like it!” And what other film ends with the audience being told that Clark Gable has been “taken for a ride.” Mortie, Lora’s bootlegging admirer and the guy who knows the guys who took Nick for his final ride end up with Lora riding off into the urban sunset.
Gable, in an early role, is convincingly evil as Nick the Chauffeur. Had he not become a star he could have had a good career portraying immoral characters as he does here and in some other early performances. With his gruff voice, he is perfect. Joan Blondell is her sexy and sassy self and for anyone who has followed this blog knows Joan, along with Stanwyck, are two of my favorite actresses. This was the second of three films they appeared in together. Stanwyck is wonderful as the strong willed nurse determined to save the children from the cruelty being imposed on them by Nick and an inattentive mother. In one scene, she actually drags the drunken mother across a room hoping to get her to pay attention to what is happening to her daughters and mutters under her breath “you mother!” The part itself does not require much depth from an acting perspective just a lot of toughness and a ‘have been there before attitude’ from Stanwyck, which she does so well. Just how tough was Stanwyck? Well, here she puts the soon to be anointed “King” Clark Gable in his place and just two years later, she cuts down to size a young John Wayne in “Baby Face.” That pretty tough! Interesting enough, Warner Brothers had the chance to sign Gable to a contract but passed on him leaving the door open for MGM to sign the future Rhett Butler.
The screenplay is based on a novel by Dora Macy, aka Grace Perkins. Reading a review of the novel in Time magazine (6/13/30), demonstrates the faithfulness of the screenplay to the book except for the character of Nick who in the movie seems to have replaced an Uncle, along with a sister-in-law, as the brains behind the plot to starve the children.
Directed by William Wellman, who keeps the pace moving, though like many Wellman films it is rough around the edges, but never dull. “Night Nurse” was the first of five films Wellman would make with Stanwyck. The others were “The Purchase Price”, “So Big”, “The Great Man’s Lady” and “Lady of Burlesque.” With at least ten sinful pre-code films in her credits Stanwyck stands up there alongside Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Ruth Chatterton and other queens of pre-code films.
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 veins, as in his previous film, Heroes for Sale. He did not beat around the bush. While films like Gold Diggers of 1933 dealt with the 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 rail 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 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 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