All six of the William A Wellman pre-Codes included in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection volume three are great to watch, and am sure I’ll go back to them all in the future. But the last one in the package, Wild Boys of the Road, may just be the best of all – and it’s also the one which addresses the Great Depression most full-on.
One of Warner Brothers’ stories “ripped from the headlines”, this is a powerful, fast-moving melodrama, with a script by Earl Baldwin from a story by Daniel Ahern, turning the spotlight on the vast army of teenagers who really were living on the streets of America at that time. The second time I watched the film I was struck by how many shots there are suggesting that these children are being regarded as society’s rubbish – from a car scrapyard scene early on to the section with a large group living in a “sewer pipe city” and another scene where they are living on New York’s municipal garbage dump. There is also a brief sequence where Frankie Darro, playing young runaway Eddie, eludes a policeman by jumping into a rubbish bin, and peeps up over the edge after he has run past. I’ve seen plenty of chase scenes where people hide in bins in comedies and cartoons – but in this one the image of Darro peeping out of the bin is heartbreaking as well as funny.
Some of the most powerful moments in this film are the large crowd scenes, where the camera pans over countless nameless children fighting with police or railway officials – but there are also poignant shots of individuals, like this one of Darro, who has a nervous energy which makes him riveting to watch, and another scene near the end where a waifish Dorothy Coonan (who later married Wellman) tap dances in the street, doing the same steps to the same music she danced to as one of the chorus in Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street, released only the previous month. (I wouldn’t have known about the dance steps without the excellent commentary on the DVD, by film historian Frank Thompson and Wellman’s son, William Wellman Jr, which traces many such connections.)
Knowing that this was a tale of homeless children wandering from one town to the next, somewhat in the vein of Wellman’s great silent film Beggars of Life, I was rather surprised to find that the first 15 minutes or so are set in a very different world. The opening scenes show teenage boys in a small town (I’m not sure if it is ever named) driving their home-built cars to a high school dance, and kissing their girlfriends on the back seats. There is even a pre-Code drag joke in almost the first minute of the film, where Eddie’s best friend, Tommy (Edwin Phillips) sneaks into the dance - which is charging boys for admission but letting girls in free - by dressing up in his girlfriend Harriet’s coat and hat. As with the rubbish bin sequence, it is a comic scene, but there is a bitter edge to it, because we are soon to discover that Tommy is penniless and eating his meals from a soup kitchen – so paying for a ticket in the normal way isn’t an option for him.
These opening scenes are partly to set up the ordinary world which the boys will be leaving behind, as with the sleepy farm scenes at the start of Wellman’s silent war film Wings - and also to ensure the audience’s sympathy for the children, by showing that they didn’t set out to be “wild” and live apart from society. (“Do you think we like living on the road?” demands Eddie in the final courtroom scene.) Eddie’s middle-class family life seems warm and idyllic in the brief glimpse we have of it before it is all torn away, as he slips into the house late at night and helps himself to a slice of pie and a glass of milk from the fridge. But, before he has even eaten any of the pie, he learns that his father, James (Grant Mitchell, who also plays the father in Wellman’s earlier The Star Witness) has lost his responsible job at the local cement factory – and soon the family is being faced with eviction.
Tommy and Eddie decide to strike out for themselves, so that their families will no longer have to feed them. They impulsively jump aboard a freight train, where they meet up with Sally (Coonan), who is dressed as a boy, just like Louise Brooks in Beggars of Life. The three of them head for Chicago hoping to find work - but there are bleak scenes when they arrive, as dozens of children are marched off to the “pen”, like stray dogs (one boy is apparently eating dog food), and one is told ”There aren’t enough jobs here for men, let alone kids”. Sally takes the two boys to stay with her aunt (Minna Gombell) – who turns out to be the madam of a brothel/speakeasy but is very kind and welcoming, unlike most of the respectable citizens. However, she is arrested within minutes of their arrival and the children find themselves on the road again. Straight after that comes the torrential rain which is Wellman’s trademark, as the elements turn on them too. The rest of the film follows the children from one freight train and one town to the next, through increasingly desperate situations and suffering. There is quite a lot of humour woven in all the way through, some of it provided by a young Sterling Holloway as one of the boys on the road, and some wisecracking dialogue lightens the mood at times too, but the main story is very bleak.
I don’t think this is really the sort of film where you need to worry about spoilers, but anyway, I will be discussing some major plot points and the ending in this next bit.
In the aftermath of the rain, another girl travelling with the group, Lola (Ann Hovey) tries to dry her jumper over a fire in a shed, and is trapped there and raped by a railway official. The rape scene isn’t shown but it is clear what has happened. Eddie and the other boys take revenge by throwing the rapist out of a moving train to his death – although I don’t think it’s completely clear whether they mean to kill him, or whether the door falls open, and they are never accused of murder.
In any case, Lola’s ordeal shows the terrible dangers surrounding the young runaways all too clearly, as does the fate of Tommy – who trips over on the railway tracks and has his foot run over by a train while he is lying helpless, in a scene which is very difficult to watch without turning your head away. A doctor then agrees to come out to the scene and amputate part of his leg while Eddie talks to Tommy to keep him calm - this is one of the most moving scenes in the film, very reminiscent of the scene in the war film Wings where one man dies in another’s arms. Touchingly, Tommy suddenly turns back into a schoolboy and starts to joke about his schoolfriends and his mother, all long left behind, as if he was seeing them every day. (“I won’t have to run errands for Mom any more”.)
After battles with police and being cheated into joining in a robbery, Eddie and the other two are arrested and land up in the courtroom – where the judge (played by Robert Barrat, star of several Wellman films) lectures them about their juvenile delinquency and even tells Eddie “You are an enemy to society” – a phrase reminiscent of the title of The Public Enemy.
At this point, Eddie and Tommy are both given powerful short speeches where they accuse not only the judge but also the society which has driven them out. A weeping Eddie comments: “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.”
Tommy adds :”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? We’re kids! “
At this point, the judge suddenly becomes incredibly kindly and, glancing at an FDR blue eagle and the slogan “We do our part” on his wall, starts to promise that he will put everything right for the children, magically conjuring up jobs for all of them, and even revealing that he somehow knows Eddie’s father will soon have a new job, so he will be able to go home again. Knowing that the studio insisted on Wellman including an upbeat reference to Roosevelt in Heroes For Sale, I wasn’t very surprised to hear that this improbably happy ending is the result of more studio interference. The original ending would have seen Sally and Tommy sent to juvenile hall and Eddie to juvenile prison. William Wellman Jr says in the DVD commentary that his father never liked the re-shot ending and always preferred the original. I don’t know if the original ending still exists – can anyone enlighten me on this? (Some other scenes were also cut out before release, as with other early Wellman films.)
In any case, there is still a bitter note to the ending we have, to counter-balance the overload of sweetness. Thomas Doherty’s book Pre-code Hollywood, which has a very good and detailed account of this film, points out that, as Frankie Darro does back-flips in the street to celebrate the judge’s kindness, Tommy is watching and clearly thinking that he will never be able to do back-flips again.
All through the film, there are a lot of references to Warner’s Busby Berkeley films, such as Eddie whistling “We’re in the money” from Gold Diggers of 1933 – and there is even a scene where Eddie, running away from police, rushes straight through the middle of a cinema showing Footlight Parade, starring James Cagney. I assumed this was a reference to a film the audience had previously seen and enjoyed, but was startled to realise from the imdb that Footlight Parade actually came out the month after Wild Boys of the Road – so this was a glimpse of a forthcoming attraction.
Just to add that I’m going to write about a couple more Wellman pre-Codes and then take a break from him for a bit to catch up with writing about some other films, before hopefully writing about some of his later movies in the future.