Thursday, October 22, 2009

Wild Boys of the Road (Warners, as “First National,” 1933)

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

I decided to reproduce a recent double-bill on TCM, Wild Boys of the Road and Girls of the Road (I guess the girls weren’t quite so “wild”), presented as part of their current salute to films about the Depression, both the ones made during it and the ones made about it afterwards. Though with similar stories and themes, they couldn’t have been more different. Wild Boys of the Road starts out as a typical student film, with Eddie Smith (Frankie Darro) and his friend Tommy Gordon (Edwin Phillips) trying to get into a “Sophomore Frolic” dance for which admission is 75 cents for boys and free for girls. Eddie has enough for his own ticket but not enough to stake Tommy, so he dresses Tommy in drag and gets him in for free — but a watchman catches Tommy taking off his wig and dress and revealing a suit under it, and Our Heroes and their dates all get thrown out. Tommy tells Eddie he plans to drop out of school and look for work, and Eddie says he’ll ask his dad (Grant Mitchell) if his employer can give Tommy a job — but Eddie finds out that his dad has been laid off himself.

Not wanting to burden his family, Eddie takes off on the road with Tommy, and on the first train they hop they meet Grace (Rochelle Hudson), a young woman dressed as a man so she can “ride the rods” without having to worry about sexual assault. The first 20 minutes or so of this film are pretty silly, but once the “wild” boys actually get on the road it becomes a near-masterpiece, directed with an utter lack of sentimentality by William A. Wellman (who in a 1927 Paramount silent called Beggars for Life had already pulled the gimmick of having a woman hobo dress as a man — in that one she was played by Louise Brooks, who named it as her favorite of her films) and putting its characters through a series of ordeals, leavened only by a series of all too transitory breaks. They’re busted en masse by police, find a modicum of decency in a homeless encampment until it too is raided, and in the scene everyone remembers from this film Tommy collapses on a railroad track and, though he manages to pull himself far enough away that he doesn’t die when the train inevitably comes, does lose a leg in the crash and is put through intense pain both at the scene of the accident and later, when a sympathetic doctor (Arthur Hohl) treats him, during his ministrations.

The ending is a bizarre piece of propaganda for the Roosevelt administration: after being arrested for attempting to hold up a theatre, Eddie — who agreed to take a note to the theatre cashier for a promise of $5, which he was planning to use so he could buy a coat to work a legitimate job as an elevator boy (the two men who made this offer to him were such obvious gangster types I guess we’re supposed to assume that Eddie never went to the movies even when his family still had money) — and his two friends, Tommy and Grace, end up before a judge who has an NRA poster on the wall above his chair, and who ultimately gives them a chance to work themselves out of their predicament on condition that they promise to return home to their parents as soon as they’ve earned the money to do so. The ending is overly blatant and strikes a false note, but the rest of the film, written by Earl Baldwin from a story by Daniel Ahearn, has been so powerful (interestingly anticipating some of the scenes of The Grapes of Wrath even though it was made three years before John Steinbeck’s novel was published) that one can forgive it.

Wild Boys of the Road is one of Wellman’s triumphs as a Warners contractee, rivaling The Public Enemy and the awesome (and woefully little-known) Safe in Hell, and it’s also a film that uses the greater sexual and moral freedom of the so-called “pre-Code” era not to titillate but to make a powerful dramatic point: in one sequence a railroad man catches Grace washing out her clothes, realizes she’s a girl, and rapes her — and the “wild boys” band together and push him off the train, presumably killing him (though in fact he disappears from the story altogether and we don’t find out if he lives or dies). Though the “R-word” is never used (even in the “pre-Code” days there was enough enforcement of the Production Code that they couldn’t quite go there), the scene is pretty obvious and quite intense, especially in capturing Rochelle Hudson’s sense of having been violated in a way that seems modern.

Wild Boys of the Road also gains from its blessedly sparing use of music — the idea of underscoring dialogue scenes was still in its infancy; Jack Warner wasn’t yet issuing ukases that the music should start when it said “Warner Bros. Presents” and not let up until it said “The End,” and aside from the opening and closing credits and a powerful montage scene of various “wild boys” (including the principals and seemingly thousands of others) in the middle, the film is unscored and is actually more powerful from the lack of music. The scene in which Tommy loses his leg on the tracks has been shown in just about every documentary on Wellman, Warners in the 1930’s or how Hollywood dealt with the Depression, but if anything it’s even more powerful in context — and Wild Boys of the Road emerges as a near-masterpiece, tough, gritty and blessedly free of compromise until that regrettable but inevitable ending.