Youth Derailed: William A. Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

wild boys of the road

By Heather Babcock

 “You say ya gotta 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 wanna see us.” – Eddie (Frankie Darro), Wild Boys of the Road (1933).

When it comes to Depression-era movies, we tend to picture splashy musicals, Fred Astaire’s tap shoes and Shirley Temple’s dimples.  But there were many films of the decade which chose instead to turn away from the glitter in favor of the grit: movies that had their noses planted in the newspaper headlines of the day and their feet in the dirty streets. Films like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and Heroes for Sale (1933). These are movies that came out of Warner Brothers, a studio which prided itself on catering to a working class audience. For a brief moment in time blue collar workers, taxi drivers, waitresses, maids and the unemployed could see images of themselves up on the silver screen. These images usually came in the voluptuous mold of Joan Blondell or the firecracker form of James Cagney. But they were there, just the same. Warner Brothers, home of the gangster flick and Busby Berkeley musicals, strove to tell stories “ripped from the headlines of the day” – the main rule being that the stories never be boring. Darryl F. Zanuck, Warner’s then-head of production, wrote a letter to the Hollywood Reporter in 1932 advocating these types of films which, as he wrote, “must have the punch and smash that would entitle it to a headline on the front page of any successful metropolitan daily.” One of those films – which definitely packs one smash of a punch – is Warner’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933), directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman.

It is a crying shame that Wellman is not better remembered today. He directed a whopping seventy-six films in his time including the influential gangster picture The Public Enemy (1931), the original A Star is Born (1937) and the first winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, Wings (1927). Even just one of these movies would be an enviable accomplishment! It was however his 1933 film Wild Boys of the Road, about a group of young train hopping waifs, which held a special place in his heart: his son, William Wellman, Jr., wrote in his 2015 biography Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel that the film’s story reminded Wellman of his own troubled youth. His son has said that of all of his movies, the director counted Wild Boys of the Road (1933) among his top ten favorites.

The plight of homeless people is often romanticized in the media. In the 1930s, newspapers couldn’t resist the adventurous stories of down-on-their-luck individuals who “rode the rails” in the hopes of finding work. In an article published on July 15th, 1931 the Globe newspaper wrote: “As a general rule, the hobo is on the road because a cog slipped earlier somewhere in the machinery of his life…The lure of the road has gripped him, and in the morning he must be off to new scenes.”

But those “new scenes” and adventures were often filled with misery, violence and trauma. Wild Boys of the Road (1933) rips apart the headlines of the day and admirably turns its unflinching eye on the brutal crush of poverty.

In Wild Boys of the Road (1933), two fun loving kids, Eddie (Frankie Darro) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips), find themselves slipping from working class into poverty when their parents lose their jobs. Deciding that their “folks have got enough worry”, our heroes head off on the road in search of employment. The movie makes clear that Eddie and Tommy are not doing this out of any romantic notions about the “lure of the road” but rather due to the pull of poverty. This is highlighted when they meet another runaway train-hopper, an orphan named Sally (Dorothy Coonan), who dresses up as a boy in order to avoid being raped. “Gee,” Eddie asks her, “Ain’t you afraid, traveling all alone?” Sally shrugs. “It wouldn’t do me any good if I was.” Together Sally, Eddie and Tommy join a group of fellow homeless teenagers, setting up a make-shift camp nicknamed by the newspapers as “Sewer Pipe City”. No Lord of the Flies here: instead the world that the kids make for themselves is one of harmony and team work. There is no leader and no prejudice as the community is one that includes boys and girls of all races, ethnicities and religions. Everyone is equal in Sewer Pipe City, a makeshift world which is much more civilized than the “real” adult world. Sadly, their world is brutally destroyed by a gang of fire hose wielding policemen, on orders from city officials to disperse Sewer Pipe City. Now Sally, Eddie and Tommy – who in the film’s most harrowing scene loses his leg after getting it caught in the train tracks – head out on their own to panhandle in the hopes of scrounging up enough money for Eddie to afford to buy a suit so he can get a job as an elevator operator. The lack of new and clean clothing – something most of us take for granted – was (and still is) a barrier to employment that the film’s Depression era audience could certainly relate to: in Pierre Berton’s 1990 book The Great Depression, he includes snippets of letters that unemployed Canadians wrote to then Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, begging the PM for cash in order to buy decent clothing and food. One letter writer tells of how a prospective employer not only admonished her for her “shabby” appearance but advised her to prostitute herself in order to obtain the clothing needed to look “presentable” for the job.

In Wild Boys of the Road (1933), our trio’s situation goes from dangerous to dire after Eddie is tricked by a couple of thugs into sticking up a movie theatre ticket booth and the three innocents are hauled off to court. Standing before the judge (played by character actor Robert Barrat), with his cap in hand, Eddie bravely states:

“I’ll tell you why we can’t go home. Because our folks are poor. They can’t get jobs and there isn’t enough to eat. What good will it do you to send us home to starve? You say you gotta 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 wanna see us. You wanna forget us. Well, 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.”

 It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve watched this film – this speech always gives me chills. Heck, just writing it choked me up.

In the original ending (which was filmed although I don’t know if it still exists today), the kids are sent to jail. However Jack Warner ordered both a reshoot and a happier ending. There was a change in the air in the fall of 1933, when this film was released. Franklin D. Roosevelt had taken office in March of that year and his “New Deal” was giving Americans new hope: they may have been beaten down but they were now “looking up”. This hopefulness is exhibited in the film’s new ending: the judge, rising forth from under a National Recovery Administration poster (bearing the slogan “We Do Our Part”), promises to help Sally, Eddie and Tommy. “Things are going to be better now,” he assures Eddie. “Not only here in New York but all over the country. I know your father will return to work shortly. That means you can go back to school.” He tells Eddie that he will help him get the elevator operator job and promises Sally that he will find her steady work as a housekeeper. Placing a paternal hand on Tommy’s shoulder, he vows to “find a spot” for the now amputated youth, where he will “be given a chance.” Compare this ending to the bleakness of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) released almost a year earlier.

Wild Boys of the Road boasts no major stars, rather it is a “who’s who” list of Warner’s stable of fabulous character actors including the aforementioned Barrat, Claire McDowell, Minna Gombell, Grant Mitchell and the always wonderful Sterling Holloway (probably best known today as the original voice of Winnie the Pooh). Edwin Phillips does a fine job as Tommy – his performance in the scene where Tommy has his leg amputated is gut wrenching and painfully visceral. Producer Hal B. Wallis reportedly called it “one of the best scenes” he had ever seen. Surprisingly, Wild Boys of the Road (1933) was one of only three films Phillips ever made. Likewise, Frankie Darro as Eddie is absolutely thrilling – it is appropriate that he was originally chosen to play a young James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931) (before the adult roles were switched): he has all of Cagney’s charm, grace and punch. Both a physical and emotional performer, Darro possessed the ability to make audiences smile and cry. At the end of Wild Boys of the Road (1933), he literally spins on his head in glee – it is joyous and impressive to watch. It is puzzling as to why the immensely talented Darro did not go on to enjoy a Cagney-esque career. Some point to his small stature (he never grew much taller or broader than he was in Boys) as a possible reason but Cagney himself was only 5’5 and that didn’t stop him from achieving leading man status. Guess we’ll have to chalk this one up to the luck of the draw.

Undoubtedly one of the reasons that Wild Boys of the Road (1933) held a special place in director Wellman’s heart is that he fell in love with, and later married, its female star: Dorothy Coonan, who prior to this film was kicking up her heels in the Busby musicals. He met “Dottie”, as the freckled chorus girl was known, on the set of Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). Warner Brothers wanted a more bankable starlet for the role of Sally but Wellman insisted on the unknown Coonan: “I want you with your freckles and boyish charm,” he told her. “They’re prettier than you but you are prettier to me” (as quoted in Wild Bill Wellman – Hollywood Rebel, written by William Wellman, Jr.). Coonan is absolutely wonderful as tomboy Sally. The promotional lobby cards and posters for the movie attempted to sexualize her character (“She shared their clothes – their lives – their adventures…see what happened to this lone beauty among thousands of Wild Boys of the Road!” one poster breathlessly enthuses). Thankfully the movie itself neither sexualizes nor objectifies Sally – she is seen as an equal, both in the eyes of the “boys” and the film.

Full of horror, humor and hope, eighty-five years later Wild Boys of the Road (1933) is still one heck of an exhilarating ride.

Copyright Heather Babcock

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