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