Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

Wild Boys of the Road 1933

Directed by William A. Wellman (Wild Bill), a major Hollywood filmmaker among whose better movies are Wings (1927, on WWI fliers and romance) which received the first ever Oscar for Best Picture; A Star is Born (1937), Nothing Sacred (1937, an all-time classic screwball comedy), Beau Geste (1939), The Light that Failed (1939), the disturbing The Ox-Bow Incident (1943, about a kangaroo court), The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), Battleground (1949), The Happy Years (1950), Westward the Women (1951), Across the Wide Missouri (1951), The High and the Mighty (1954).

Wild Boys was produced by the Warner Brothers studio which was relatively small, but by far Hollywood's most socially-conscious and realistic. To this day its percentage of "serious," often grim, often classic films is far above those of other companies.

This is a deep Depression movie. In an unnamed, midwestern small town, Eddie (Frankie Darro) and Tommy (Edwin Philips) are best high-school chums. Tommy's life seems more affected by hard times than Eddie's: he has no father; his mother ekes out a living by renting rooms, but is riddled with debts and menaced with eviction. Eddie Smith has loving parents. His father (the familiar character actor Grant Mitchell) seems to be one of the rare locals with a job at a concrete factory. Eddie is rather insouciant and even plans to helphis pal Tommy. But Mr. Smith gets suddenly laid off.

Eddie sells his beloved jalopy for $22 which he gives his father -- but still, both he and his friend are conscious that they are burdens on their folks.They decide to look for work by climbing on a freight train and join the multitude of those who ride the rails. In a wagon they meet a boy who turns out to be a girl, Sally (Dorothy Coonan). For the same reasons of unburdening her people, she's trying to get to Chicago and a beloved aunt.

The trip is hard. In South Chicago railroad police and officials decide their fate. In some ways this reminds me of the post WW II movies where the Nazis select Jews at rail stops, sending them right (to immediate death) or left (forced labor and slower death). But this is 1933 and there are elements of kindness by the selectors.

Nonetheless, it's a hard life for the riders, who, in this film, are not adults but all boys-- except Sally. The three friends reach Chicago and the aunt who welcomes them. But in her apartment she is running a speakeasy (probably, since Prohibition, 1919-1933, may still have been in effect) and a bordello (but this is merely suggested fleetingly). Within seconds of the young people' arrival the police raid the place. So it's back to the trains.

They wander about the midwest. Not far from Columbus, Ohio they are brutally (but, another point here, not sadistically) ejected, and so on. But Tommy loses a leg to an oncoming train.

Later the boys form a kind of community near a city dump, with a certain amount of organization, team spirit and efficiency. They are all kind to Tommy. Eddie even gets him an artificial leg.

There, and on the trains, there is a tiny minority of black kids. Interestingly, although the Negro boys stick together, there is not a whiff of racism, discrimination or enmity among the white majority. But again, the city police is ordered to close down the place. They do it without nastiness, even when the boys pelt them with stones. However, calling in fire hoses signals the end of this chapter.

Back on the rails, the three friends reach New York City -- where things come to a climax. A couple of men offer Eddie five dollars (a fortune!) to give a note to the cashier of movie-house that plays "All Talking Pictures." Predictably this a hold-up note. The police come, arrest the young trio, take them to court. Yet this leads to a hopeful, semi-happy ending thanks to a humane, understanding and helpful Judge.

The film's title is a bit misleading for today's audiences. The boys are wild in the sense of wandering, outside-normal-times society. There's nothing wild with the meaning of nasty, brutal or bad, about them.

The major nasty episode (other than the lost leg) is like a quick parenthesis. A railway police fellow finds a lone girl in a wagon and attacks her. I cannot remember whether this was Sally or someone else. The entire scene is treated discreetly so that it is not even certain that she was raped, although one suspects this.

The man in this case is played by an uncredited Ward Bond. Bond had roles, from tiny to major supporting ones, in a huge number of pictures. He came into his own because he was, supposedly, a college friend of John Wayne's, in whose pictures he was time after time. Frankie Darro who plays Eddie never reached fame and glory, in spite of small roles in many films. A short fellow, to the best of my memory he played more than once a jockey (and a venal one) and more nasty guys than good ones.

Sally is played by Dorothy Coonan. She is a pretty, most appealing girl. Yet except for very few, uncredited bit parts, she was never a performer. But she did marry director William Wellman in 1933, the year of Wild Boys. He had been married thrice before. Ms. Coonan-Wellman produced seven children.

The movie is warm, carefully avoids being entirely downbeat, in fact leans on the side of being positive. Its realism is mitigated by a kind of optimism that would not turn off audiences. Yet it is still a solid, topical, touching and valid portrayal of disastrous days.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel