Thursday, October 22, 2009

Girls of the Road (Columbia, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the power and impact of Wild Boys of the Road, Girls of the Road was a return to “reality” as usually seen by the movie camera. Robert D. Andrews’ “original” screenplay focused not on the “wild girls” themselves but on an outsider who enters their ranks to snoop — in this case Kay Warren (Ann Dvorak), daughter and secretary to Governor Warren (Howard Hickman) of the carefully unnamed state where this story takes place (the writers and director of Wild Boys of the Road kept their film carefully grounded in genuine geography), who hears a couple of well-minded civic reformers give a report to her dad on conditions for women on the road, realizes that the report will just get shit-canned if someone doesn’t go out there and document the real life of the “road girls,” and naturally decides to be that person herself, taking off for the road with a nice coat and slacks and $200 on her.

This film was made in 1940, when the Depression was no longer a “live” issue, and its main purpose seems to have been to titillate the audience with as much sexual suggestion as Andrews and the director, Nick Grindé (who’s actually a considerably more interesting filmmaker here than he was in the contemporary “mad scientist” sci-fi/horror films he was making at Columbia with Boris Karloff as his star), could cram into a “post-Code” film. The Lesbian subtexts are veiled but still there — seeing tough-as-nails Mickey (Helen Mack), the hobo Kay first antagonizes and then befriends, one almost expects them to become a Lesbian couple with Mickey as the butch and Kay as the femme — and there’s an even harder type when they get to an abandoned show boat that’s being run as a camp for female tramps by an even tougher broad. At the same time there’s vulnerable Irene (Marjorie Cooley), who’s carrying a box containing a white wedding dress because, in a spectacular example of misplaced priorities, she wanted to go back home to her fiancé but she didn’t have enough money for both a bus ticket and a wedding dress, so she bought the dress and tried to hitch back — and naturally, as the only girl in the dramatis personae who actually has a relationship (even though we never see her boyfriend), she’s the one who dies. The film’s stars, Dvorak, Mack and Lola Lane (playing yet another attitude queen from the road), supposedly got busted in Saugus, California by a police chief who were convinced they were real hoboes, not just actresses playing them.

Girls of the Road isn’t a bad movie, but it suffers so much by comparison with Wild Boys of the Road it probably wasn’t a good idea for either TCM or us to screen them consecutively. The “road girls” themselves may be wearing the most dirty and disheveled trousers in Columbia’s wardrobe department, but throughout the movie their hair is perfectly permed and their eyebrows plucked. There are plot holes galore — in one scene Elly steals Kay’s clothes and Irene’s wedding dress but somehow misses the $200 bankroll Kay had stashed (I was expecting this scene to anticipate the gimmick in Sullivan’s Travels in which the person who was pretending to be a hobo suddenly finds himself cut off from all his money and resources and forced to live as one, but no dice) — and there’s music, music, music (done by Columbia’s usual committee of stock-music composers, including Sidney Cutner, Ben Oakland, George Parrish, Gregory Stone and Dimitri Tiomkin), underscoring scenes Wellman powerfully left silent in Wild Boys of the Road (including a copy of the scene in which the hoboes throw the rapist off the train — only in this version the girls attack before the rape occurs and the assailant definitely survives).

Girls of the Road
isn’t a bad movie, most of the acting is perfectly fine (though I’m not much of an Ann Dvorak fan and I still think the 1932 film Three on a Match would have been better if she and Bette Davis had switched roles), and the “happy ending” (the governor’s daughter, returned to her normal social status, uses her influence and contact to build a “girls’ castle” — a home in which the “girls of the road” can settle and get rehabilitated) is actually more convincing than the one stuck on Wild Boys of the Road, but especially compared to Wellman’s near-masterpiece, Girls of the Road simply partakes too much of the standard-issue silliness that generally crept into 1930’s Hollywood films when they tried to take on serious social, political or economic issues.