Frankie Darro and Dorothy Coonan in 'Wild Boys of the Road'
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.
Continuing my efforts to watch as many William Wellman pre-Codes as possible, I’ve now seen Lilly Turner a couple of times. This movie sadly isn’t available on DVD as yet – I believe it sometimes turns up on TCM in the US, though, and is well worth looking out for. It strikes me there are easily enough early Wellman movies for a second Forbidden Hollywood collection focusing on him, though it’s more likely the lesser-known titles will turn up as Warner Archive releases.
This was the second time Ruth Chatterton had starred in a Wellman film (the first was Frisco Jenny the previous year. Once again she plays a woman who is forced to be tough by circumstances, but who still clings to a few battered ideals. This time, her character, Lilly, is a woman working in a succession of travelling carnivals. Wellman clearly enjoys creating the sleazy, down-at-heel circus atmosphere. The whole film feels varied and lively and, packing a lot of plot, dialogue, melodrama and black humour into just 65 minutes, moves at a breathless speed. (As with Wellman’s So Big!, it was originally longer and some footage was cut before release – Walter Brennan was among the actors whose scenes were deleted.) George Brent gets top billing opposite Chatterton, but he only comes into the film fairly late on – and to my mind Frank McHugh really has the main male role, as the heroine’s second husband. Robert Barrat is also superb as a tormented strongman, with a heavy German accent he was breaking in for Heroes For Sale.
Richard Barthelmess might be best known as a star of silent films, but I think he was equally good in early talkies, when his boyish looks were starting to fade. He was great as a tormented wartime aviator in Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (1930) – and he gives another powerful performance as a drug-addicted veteran of the First World War in William Wellman’s Heroes For Sale (1933). For me this is one of the strongest offerings in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three, though it possibly goes off the boil for a bit in the middle.
This film, one of a number which Wellman made focusing on the Great Depression, follows Barthelmess’ character, Tom Holmes, from the trenches of France through to a peacetime battle in America, a march by the “forgotten men”, war veterans desperately seeking work. Both the opening in the trenches and the march of the unemployed men near the end are set amid torrential rain, which features in so many early Wellman films and seems to express the overwhelming forces bearing down on his heroes. The original working title of the film was Breadline, but it was changed to the more dramatic and bitter Heroes For Sale, underlining the theme of war veterans who can’t make a living in peacetime. However, the film isn’t just sympathetic to old soldiers, who are not particularly romanticised, but to everyone struggling in the Depression, and the hard years leading up to it.