US Release Date: 09-07-1933
Directed by: William A. Wellman
- Frankie Darro, as
- Edward 'Eddie' Smith
- Edwin Phillips, as
- Tommy Gordon
- Rochelle Hudson, as
- Dorothy Coonan Wellman, as
- Sterling Holloway, as
- Arthur Hohl, as
- Dr. Henry A. Heckel
- Ann Hovey, as
- Minna Gombell, as
- Aunt Carrie
- Grant Mitchell, as
- Mr. James Smith
- Claire McDowell, as
- Mrs. Smith
- Robert Barrat, as
- Judge R.H. White
- Willard Robertson, as
- Captain of Detectives
- Ward Bond, as
- Red, the Raping Brakeman
- Charley Grapewin, as
- Mr. Cadman
- Alan Hale Jr. as
- Judge's son in photograph
Tragedy strikes in Wild Boys of the Road.
Wild Boys of the Road is what they used to call a “Message Picture”. Made during the depths of the depression it tells the sad tale of teenagers Eddie and Tommy, best friends that run away from home in search of work because their families can no longer afford to care for them. They illegally ride the rails across the Midwest scrounging for food along the way.
They befriend a young girl traveling to Chicago to stay with her aunt. At first they assume she is a boy and, thinking “he” stole their sandwiches, Tommy gets in a fight with her. Once things get straightened out she invites the boys along and their fortunes seem to have changed for the better when they arrive in the Windy City and are warmly greeted by the aunt.
But this is a melodramatic morality tale so of course she gets arrested for prostitution within minutes of their arrival, and so the three of them are right back out on the road. They join up with many other kids and form a tent city outside of Cleveland. This leads to a confrontation with the local police that turns violent and they must move on again. Finally the road leads to New York City and the film’s climax.
Wild Boys of the Road was made before the Production Code took effect. The one scene where this is most evident takes place on a train. While everyone else is busy fighting off train inspectors a girl gets raped by a brakeman. The boys then come to her rescue and attack the man. He winds up falling off the train to his death. In another gruesome scene a boy gets his leg run over by a train. It is worth noting this ragtag group of runaways includes both Jewish and black boys.
The cast is peppered with familiar faces (and voices). Sterling Holloway plays one of the older boys. He would later make a name for himself doing voice-over work for Walt Disney, most memorably as the voice of Winnie-the-Pooh. Grant Mitchell plays Eddie’s father, his most famous role was as the frustrated homeowner besieged by The Man Who Came to Dinner. Uncle Henry from The Wizard of Oz (Charley Grapewin) plays a junk dealer. The ubiquitous Ward Bond plays the rapist brakeman. Alan Hale Jr. (better known as Skipper on Gilligan’s Island) made his movie debut as a judge’s son, although his part ended up on the cutting room floor. All that remains is his image in a photograph the judge looks at while presiding in court.
As the tagline attests Wild Boys of the Road is none too subtle. It’s pure melodrama about the plight of destitute youths during the depression. Remember this was before FDR’s New Deal, when the only financial safety net was the charity of churches and other social organizations. William A. Wellman keeps this tough little story clipping along. It’s not a great movie, some of the acting is amateurish, but it’s worth checking out.
Dorothy Coonan, Frankie Darro and Edwin Phillips in Wild Boys of the Road.
Any of last year's Occupy Wall Street protestors who thinks that their complaints were original should really watch this movie. Young Tommy in this film sums up a speech in the finale of this film with a quote that could have come from one of the Occupier's speeches. "You read in the papers about giving people help. The banks get it. The soldiers get it. The breweries get it. And they're always yelling about giving it to the farmers. What about us?" Today's protestors would probably also relate to the police coming in and driving them out of their encampment. The clothes, the slang and the times may have changed but some things stay the same no matter what the decade.
As Patrick wrote, this is pure melodrama. I agree that it's not great. It starts amusingly with a group of teenagers sneaking into a dance, but the acting is atrocious and it doesn't get that much better. Once the boys hit the road the story begins to improve and the poor acting is easier to forgive. It helps that the action, or at least the motion, speeds things along. And with a running time of barely over an hour, there's not much time to slow things down. Of the three leads, Dorothy Coonan gives one of the better performances as Sally. Apparently director Wellman thought there was something special about her as well, as he married her shortly after filming and they remained together until his death in 1975.
The rape scene is the most shocking scene. Although it's not actually shown, it's very clear what Ward Bond is about to do. Adding to the shock value is the fact that clearly the girl is meant to be underage. The leg getting cut off moment is also shocking, but apparently not as shocking as it was originally filmed. Reportedly, studio executive Hal Wallis wrote a memo regarding the scene, saying,"I am just looking at the stuff where the train passes over and cuts the kid's leg off. There is no doubt about it, it is effective but if we ever left this in, there would be more premature births in the theatre and more people dying than were killed in the World War. I hope...you will get it over more by suggestion." There's now no gore, but the scene remains effective.
Another case of studio interference, and for the worse this time, is the way the ending was altered. Originally (*Spoiler Alert*), the judge shows no pity and sends Sally and Tommy to juvenile hall and Eddie to juvenile prison. The happy ending that it was changed to feels very much like a Hollywood ending and doesn't fit with everything that came before it.
Not the most entertaining of films, Wild Boys of the Road is at least historically interesting.
Frankie Darro, the first break dancer.
Wild Boys of the Road is yet another Hollywood film that is worthy of an American history class viewing. According to RIDING THE RAILS: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression by Errol Lincoln Uys (Routledge, New York, 2003), “At the height of the Great Depression, two hundred and fifty thousand teenage hoboes were roaming America.” Lincoln also wrote, “Before the close of his first month in office, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an act creating the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC.) Unemployed and unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 25 were eligible to enroll. They were to be paid $30 a month, of which $25 was to be sent directly to their needy and dependent families. So urgent and volatile did the administration view the youth crisis that the first camp was set up on April 17, 1933 — just 12 days after the CCC was officially inaugurated. By early July, 250,000 young men were settled in 1,468 forest and park camps.” Consider that this film was released in September of that same year and you understand just how topical it was.
The scene Scott mentioned in court also has this line that Eddie cries to a judge, “You say you've got to send us to jail to keep us off the streets. Well, that's a lie. You're sending us to jail because you don't want to see us. You want to forget us. But you can't do it because I'm not the only one. There's thousands just like me, and there's more hitting the road every day.”
Hoboes, of all ages, were a real problem during the great depression. They often survived by begging and stealing, making them a public nuisance. This happy Hollywood ending is how I would like to think such stories about desperate teenagers would end but, as Scott wrote, it does not fit with everything that came before it. FDR had to move mountains to try to get the country back to work while this judge solved the problem with a quick promise.
I was not so bothered by the amateurish acting, as this movie is more about the revelation of some desperate youths than any acting award. Hollywood in the 1930s made many films with a social message warning of such things as crime and drugs. Wild Boys of the Road may not be up there with The Public Enemy (1931) but compared to Reefer Madness (1936), this is a masterpiece.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures (1933)