Friday Editor’s Pick: Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

by on February 10, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Feb 17 at 3:55 6:40 9:25 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]

William Wellman said he was forever being congratulated for Some Like It Hot (Wilder, natch) or The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, double natch). Film Forum reminds us it’s “Wellman” with their three-week series, thru March 1.
Auteurists might quibble with the salute, but most cinephiles can agree that Wellman’s Pre-Code output is some of the best of the era – incomparably devastating, hard looks at the Depression. J. Hoberman deems this double bill “Wellman’s one-two punch” at the system. Says Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The underrated William Wellman made many neglected classics during the Depression, and this 1933 feature is one of the very best— Pungent stuff.”


From that beautiful, all-too-brief time of “Guy Maddin‘s Jolly Corner,” in Film Comment:

A remarkably raw, Depression-era ejaculation of outrage from Warner Brothers, that most lubricious and grime-besmeared of the studios churning out distractions during those times of privation. Made when most movies unspooled 90 minutes of amnesia, this picture offers up an aggressive army of dust bowl vagrants who aim to spit their anger at an already beleaguered audience. Buñuel would have approved of the movie’s jarring hybrid nature- the outdoor scenes depict with documentary abrasion, and natural light, the squalid landscape that sprawled across the bankrupt continent, while the performances are delivered with a Bowery Boys stylization and snap associated with soundstage pictures of the time.
Yapping and gnashing Frankie Darro is the young pug actor charged with galvanizing this project with Wellman vinegar. With the runty zip of Cagney, this sensitive boy can play for melodramatic moisture one moment, then turn on a phalanx of flatfeet with the ferocity of a cornered cur then ext. (The spirit of revolt against authority in the movie is astonishing, almost Marxist. A mob also dispatches accused rapist Ward Bond with the celerity of trial-free justice one associates with revolution.)
Like so many of the later Sirk films, Wild Boys has a false-bottom ending that feels balming as it resolves itself, then devastates once the end credits come up. The happy endings ordained for the three main characters seem like kind but implausible dreams that offer only brief relief from the miseries of the dreamers, and those of the millions of countrymen who suffer with them. American studio agitprop!



Sean Axmaker for Parallax View:

The portrait of hobo armies of the unemployed is only the last act of a very busy Heroes for Sale but it becomes the core of Wild Boys of the Road, which chronicles the plight of kids who have fled home to find work and end up a homeless army riding the rails around the country. As the film opens, they’re just fun-loving jazz-age teens with a junky jalopy (it uses a rock on a rope for an emergency break) and all the usual fun-loving activities. But around the façade of normalcy is the anxiety of unemployment and poverty: Tommy (Edwin Phillips) can’t even afford a ticket to a dance and Eddie’s parents out of work and broke. So they hit the rails to look for work, meet Sally (Dorothy Coonan, later Mrs. Wellman), who has dressed up as a boy to avoid predators, and find themselves driven from the trains by railroad dicks and driven from city railyards and teenage shantytowns. What they endure is harrowing: rape, dismemberment, riots, not to mention poverty and starvation in a world that would rather turn its back on the kids and send them along to the next stop. It’s a cinematic blast of anger and outrage and exasperation sprung from the immediacy of the depression. Wellman doesn’t flinch from the ordeal, but for every predator is a sympathetic adult. Even some of those on the other end of the fire hose, blasting the Hooverville Junior into splinters and sends the kids fleeing to the railcars, looking to the next stop for work, a meal, or just a place to stop for awhile.

William K. Everson, in his program notes:

Inspired primarily by the Russian “The Road to Life,” but also in part by an actual case history, and in addition something of a follow-up to Wellman’s own “Beggars of Life,” “Wild Boys of the Road” is a curious film indeed. It stands up well; undated, well-paced, quite surprisingly well acted by the youthful players, and graced by photography that is both grimly realistic and strangely beautiful. It is a moving, restlessly stark kind of photography that captures the feeling of hobo life on the freight trains far more effectively than the rather studied camerawork of “Beggars of Life.” The film really convinces.


Sam Adams for the Los Angeles Times:

Wellman’s movies are models of economy, whizzing past plot points at breakneck speed, sometimes so fast that they come into focus only in the rearview mirror.”Wild Boys of the Road” doesn’t offer camp thrills or titillation, but its portrait of Depression-era life is sobering and at times astonishing. Following a pair of small-town teens who hop a boxcar looking for work, the movie sets their bright-eyed optimism on a collision course with the harsh reality of the times. Emphasizing hard-bitten authenticity, including a sequence in which a limb is severed by a locomotive, Wellman mounts an implicit critique of the escapist spectacles of the time, casting Busby Berkeley dancer Dorothy Coonan (who would become the fourth Mrs. Wellman) as a cross-dressing tramp who winds up tap-dancing for her supper.


Bertrand Tavernier on the double bill, also for Film Comment:

Wellman’s social-problem films are among the genre’s most radical and violent. Hal Wallis had several shots deleted from Wild Boys of the Road because he deemed them unbearable for the general public; to Wellman they expressed the realities of the Depression. The scenes of gangs of children running after the trains are both spectacular and poignant, and superior to Nikolai Ekk’s 1931 film Road to Life, Wellman’s original inspiration. The word “communism” is even uttered-most daringly. Of course, in Heroes for Sale, the Marxist character is co-opted by the System, and Richard Barthelmess tries to prevent the striking workers from rioting. But in addition to brutal repression Wellman shows police-like militias chasing the Reds, and he does it in a critical fashion. It is one of the few films, to my knowledge, that alludes to the existence of communists. The ending is thoroughly uncompromising: the victims of the Depression are still on the road, begging in the rain.


Alt Screen contributor Michael Atkinson, for IFC:

A mesmerizing portrait of the Depression landscape, following two uptempo high schoolers (Frankie Darro and Edwin Phillips) who, after living in “Animal House” hedonism before the stock market crash, decide to hit the road rather than leach off their starving parents, and endure (with a girl they pick up along the way, played by Rochelle Hudson) every travail of the desperate homeless, from police brutality, rape and murder to shantytown betrayal and institutional injustice. Is this the first official youth rebellion movie? (Interestingly, Hudson went on to play Natalie Wood’s mother in “Rebel Without a Cause.”)
With its Hooverville warfare and righteous socialism, the film never forgets that its tough-talking protagonists are still children in way over their heads, and Wellman connives amazingly touching moments out of his young cast, who look at each other with forlorn doubt, and whose eyes get colder as the film presses on. Darro, who was cast as snotnose punks deep into his 40s, is a revelation of shame-faced sympathy beneath the proto-Cagney demeanor of the day; just watch him when, at the outset of hard times, he sells his beloved jalopy of a car and buckles on the inside when the mechanic admits he’ll just sell her for scrap. Wellman sees this film not merely as a social issue drama but as an iconic trial — witness the magnificent vision of a hundred homeless boys standing on top of a moving train hurling rocks at the railyard dicks who tried to roust them.
It’s a blunt, fast movie, as was characteristic of the time, and so Wellman’s moments of observational patience sting your eyes.


Glenn Kenny discusses a rapturous moment, but later the film’s conclusion compromises, for MBUI:

Of course, once the boys actually hit the road, their survival instincts and new sense of community—they find themselves part of an ever-growing, farther-wandering pack of sorts, one that includes a fair number of girls, a handful of refreshingly not-too-horribly-stereotyped African American kids, and so on—feed an inchoate sense of rebellion that cries for respite from injustice. And although the cops have mixed feelings about squelching the ad hoc dwelling place the kids have squatted in somewhere between Cleveland and New York, they do their duty anyway…and the wild boys find their strength in numbers. And they fight back, pelting their oppressors with rocks.
And the picture becomes what it seems to have been wanting to become the whole time: a full-blooded cry in praise of the anarchic spirit, a dead-serious, socially purposeful all-American answer film to Vigo’s Zéro de conduite, from the same year. Wellman was nicknames “Wild Bill” largely because of his personal behavior, but here you can see that the handle also related to his creative temperament. The fluid camerawork and editing and above all the conviction of the actors on both sides give the riot scene an exhilarating directness that’s still bracing and intoxicating today.

Farran Nehme Smith, aka The Self-Styled Siren:

A revelation, uneven but sporadically brilliant. Wellman filmed the boy’s wanderings on location, and the decision gives the long middle section of the film a depth and darkness the Siren has seldom seen in American movies of the era. The two main actors were quite petite, and Wellman plays this up when filming the dangerous task of getting on and off the trains. The sense of peril, of the speed and size and impossibility of stopping the moving train, makes you realize how something like Sullivan’s Travels has glossed over the difficulties. (Wild Boys renders train-hopping several times more terrifying, for example, than watching Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones.) The cars themselves are dark, cold and offer no protection from predators.


Erich Kuersten for Bright Lights Film Journal:

Wild Boys of the Road (1933) is one of the most absorbing, clear-eyed, unsentimental pieces of social realism that pre-dates Grapes of Wrath (1939). It’s the Over the Edge (1979) of the Depression. Frankie Darro begins the film with a slogan-covered jalopy, supportive high school chums, and loving middle-class family. Believably and painfully he loses all that to the Depression, and eventually (and believably) becomes the rogue leader of some 100+ strong, wild-eyed children living and starving on the rails, in shanty towns and on the streets. He’s one little Piggy short of being Lord of the Flies, but buoyed by an innate sense of group support and the dim remnants of middle-class decency. And you care every second of the way because Darro is neither a simpering Freddie Bartholomew type, a blubbering Jackie Cooper type, nor a snickering Dead End Kids type. He’s just a smart kid trying to do the right thing, and looking after his own.
As average (middle-class) American viewers, we’ve been conditioned to think of a class system existing in the movies, if not in real life. The poor might rise to nouveau riches in the course of a film and then sink down and bob back up, or stay down, but we’re not used to seeing middle-class people just like us lose their shirts through no fault of their own and become homeless street urchins, for keeps. Watching a postwar Italian neorealist film like Bicycle Thieves, for example, is a lot easier because the characters depicted are peasants from the get-go; cultural differences make it seem like “It will never happen to me” and if you gave these people enough to live on they’d probably lose it all within a matter of hours (as when the main character throws away his seat at a free church luncheon only to squander his remaining dollars on a restaurant meal a few moments hours later, or the way mom wastes money on a fortune teller to find out if they’ll ever have any money). But Wild Boys shows kids who start out like any one of us — they’re smarter and maybe even braver than we would be in the same situation — and that just enhances the nightmare element. They’re hyper-alert to any chance, but there’s just no chances coming.
Wild Boys of the Road devastated me, frankly. It simply couldn’t be timelier in our post-Madoff age.


Goatdog‘s Movies:

Don’t let the giddy Jazz Age prologue or the deliriously happy ending fool you: this is one of the bleakest films from the 1930s that I’ve ever seen. It’s a painful assault on America’s lack of response to the Great Depression, laying the blame on corrupt officials and a government that does the bidding of the rich.
There are several striking moments in the film, moments that remind you that although Wellman didn’t have a strong personal stamp (he was never a favorite of the auteurists), he was a good director capable of greatness. After Tommy loses his leg in a train accident, Eddie spies an artificial leg in a store window. He’s facing the camera, but instead of looking to the left or right of the lens, he stares right into it. It’s clearly meant to implicate the audience in the boys’ plight, and I felt a guilty chill, even seventy years after the Depression. I can only imagine how this moment affected cognizant viewers at the time. Moments later, when the city has set a noon deadline for the squatting kids to leave town, Wellman uses the traditional visual trope of showing a clock with the time in question displayed. However, the clock he chose is a jewel-encrusted watch in a jewelry store window. The message is clear: this deadline is set at the behest of the rich, who want the kids to leave so they won’t be reminded of the suffering of the rest of America.
But the final instance is the most striking, bordering on the postmodern. When the police chase Eddie into a movie theater after he inadvertently gets involved in a holdup, the theater in question is showing another Warner Bros. release, the Lloyd Bacon–directed Busby Berkeley musical Footlight Parade. This goes far beyond cross-promotion and into a covert criticism of escapist entertainment (perhaps specifically answered by Preston Sturges with Sullivan’s Travels). Footlight Parade is about Chester Kent (James Cagney), who creates live musical prologues for films; during the chase, Eddie ends up onstage where such a prologue might occur, James Cagney looming over him mid-tapdance. Eddie has become one of Kent’s prologues, a bit of escapist entertainment for the audience members, who get an extra vicarious thrill out of Eddie’s suffering.



Alt Screen Contributing Editor Dan Callahan writes a paean to star Frankie Darro, for The Chiseler:

In Wild Boys of the Road, Darro is Eddie, more of a recognizable bluff and hearty American boy of the 1930s, somebody who can say, “Aw gee whiz” with total sincerity. There are times when he sounds a little like Mickey Rooney, who was his classmate at The Lawlor Professional School, a place where child star family meal tickets were educated, so to speak. At a dance with his girl, Eddie pulls her close and plants a lingering kiss on her neck, and when he’s at home, he grabs himself a huge chunk of apple pie; he’s a sensualist who enjoys life. The Depression lands his father out of work, and when the father’s unemployment stretches far enough, Eddie sells his car to help out; when the man at the junkyard drives it away, Darro rubs his nose to keep from crying, a very original and touching gesture.
After this careful set-up, we see Eddie and his friend Tommy (Edwin Phillips) run away from home and ride the rails, and the film introduces a whole army of homeless boys and girls who fight against cops and officials and create their own community. Tommy loses his leg after a train runs it over, and Eddie steals an artificial leg for him, but it’s too big to fit; after the cops firehose the kids out of their community, Wellman makes a quick cut to this artificial leg lying in the mud, a brutal capper to the injustice on display in this picture. Darro gets a monologue at the end to a Roosevelt-like judge that ends on a note of defiance: “Jail can’t be any worse than the streets!” he cries, before collapsing. The film concludes on a New Deal pledge of hope, and Darro almost makes us believe this hope when he goes outside and does a bunch of back flips and then spins around on his head, an old vaudeville specialty and a cheering sight (as the old lady on Red Skelton’s show, Darro would sometimes break into these acrobatics for laughs). When he gets up, Darro does a “Ta Dah!” arm gesture at the camera, and this is enough to win anyone’s loyalty or faith.
If you look at Darro in Mayor of Hell and Wild Boys of the Road, it’s hard not to concoct “if only” scenarios for him, but when you can do back flips and spin on your head, the vicissitudes of a hard life and career fall away, and all you’re left with is Darro leaping to his feet and smiling over skills he never wanted but has decided to enjoy.


Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

William Wellman’s nomadic Hooverville from Beggars of Life, adjusted to the 1929 Crash and attuned to the young drifter’s terse argument, “one less mouth to feed.” The country’s disintegrating middle-class is promptly imagined as a wheezing jalopy barely held together with slogans, in it are the boys (Frankie Darro, Edwin Phillips), high-schoolers sneaking into the dance only to come home to their parents’ mountains of bills. Riding the rails in hopes of alleviating their families’ situation, they meet fellow runaway Dorothy Coonan and the nation of “brothers and sisters stranded on the road” Woody Guthrie sang about in “I Ain’t Got No Home.” No mere Dear-Mr.-Roosevelt pamphlet but a proto-Neorealist howl, Wellman’s shock to the system hinges on the roughhewn confrontation of such sights as a prosthetic leg discarded in a muddy melee and Darro’s juvenile gaze hardening into a model for Mouchette or Pixote. In this exposé of children in the rubble, adults are at worst raping bullies sweeping the problem under a rug, at best helpless authority figures in impossible quandaries. (“How do you think I feel, with two kids of my own at home?” asks a policeman seconds before hosing the pubescent hobos out of their refuge.) The tour of shantytowns, cathouses and junkyards is bruisingly sketched via staccato editing, an abrupt camera perched atop a moving freight train, the Brechtian fissure of a screen-within-a-screen inserting Busby Berkeley fantasy amid the violence (cf. Bonnie and Clyde). FDR materializes in the shape of the judge (Robert Barrat) who first brands the desperate protagonists “enemies to society,” then gives them a break and bids them Godspeed under the New Deal eagle. The ending juggles reformist hope and lifeworn despair, a jubilant pirouette stopped in its tracks by the realization of children maimed by crisis.



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