September 21, 2014 by smumcounty
Between 1929 and 1939 more than 250,000 men left their homes and took to the road to ride the rails or hitch rides as hoboes. When we think of the iconic hobo today, we picture a grizzled old prospector type with a three day growth of beard and a battered old fedora. Right now I’m thinking of Joel McCrea from “Sullivan’s Travels”. But in the 30’s these hoboes were more likely to be young men and teenagers who hit the road because they didn’t want to be a burden to a family hit hard by The Great Depression. “Wild Boys of the Road” (1933) was Warner Brothers’ attempt to sell tickets with an issue film involving a topic that must have been getting a lot of press at the time.
The film starts out with Eddie (Frankie Darro) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips) engaging in pursuits that any red-blooded teenager at the time would be engaged in. They take a couple of dates to the local dance and Tommy gets in trouble when he tries to sneak in dressed as a girl in order to save the two bits entrance fee charged the fellas. They don’t have anything more on their minds than necking during the slow dances and siphoning off enough gas from other cars to run Eddie’s old jalopy. But they’re not completely carefree. Tommy’s dad is dead and he and his mother have been getting assistance from the local community chest. His mother has had to rent out an extra room to make ends meet. Still all is pretty good until Eddie’s father loses his job at the cement plant. As the bills start to stack up Eddie gets the idea that maybe he’d like to hit the road and look for work like he’s heard so many other young men have been doing. “Why should I stick in school when he has to stand in a bread line?” Tommy feels that his mother would be able to make a go of it with just the income from the lodger if she didn’t have to worry about feeding Tommy. So they both decide to catch the next boxcar heading out of town.
On that first car they jump, they run into Sally (Dorothy Coonan), a teenage girl who’s hit the road for much the same reason. She’s got a big family and she figures one less mouth to feed would be a blessing to her parents. She’s riding the rails to get to Chicago where she plans on living with her aunt. She invites Eddie and Tommy to join her. From here on the film takes an episodic view of hobo life showing that it’s not as glamorous as it might have at first seemed. Often times they have to ride in open boxcars in the rain and they constantly have to worry about the yard bulls chasing them off the train and roughing them up for good measure. By the time they get to Chicago, they’ve joined up with other kids riding the rails and they number more than a hundred. There, Sally’s hopes of staying with her aunt are dashed. They no sooner arrive at the aunt’s apartment than the cops raid the place for being a speakeasy.
Jumping on and off a moving train is none too safe as one can imagine and the film clearly demonstrates this. When the kids come into a yard and have to jump off to avoid the railroad detectives, Tommy jumps off the train and promptly runs into a sign standing among the tracks. He’s knocked to the ground and is so dazed he can’t avoid a train coming in the opposite direction. It runs over his foot requiring that his leg be amputated below the knee. He spends the rest of the movie hobbling around on a makeshift crutch.
The road poses special dangers to teenage girls. When one of the girls traveling with the group is alone in a boxcar, she takes off her shirt to dry it over a fire that one of the boys has made. While she is sitting there in her flimsy training bra the brakeman, played by Ward Bond, walks in and practically licks his lips at the sight of this young girl. “What’s the matter? That sweater wet?…Come back in the caboose we’ll dry it for you.” When she refuses he grabs her. “You don’t wanna be friendly, huh?” The scene mercifully ends there. For anyone who’s familiar with Ward Bond’s work as a character actor in the 30’s and 40’s, playing likeable characters in “The Quiet Man” and “The Searchers”, this scene is doubly disturbing. Ward Bond, no! Even with this being a pre-code film, the word rape is never spoken. When the boys come back into the car and see the girl lying there, she only tells them that she’s been attacked. “I was all alone. He put his hand over my mouth so I couldn’t scream.” Enough said. We get the picture.
Besides that brakeman, the authority figures in this film are not portrayed as heavies but just men trying to do their jobs. Outside Chicago, the kids on the train are rounded up by the railroad detectives. At first you think they’re in for at least a beating. Instead, the detective in charge examines each kid and lets those go that have some way of proving they have a reason for being in Chicago, like a letter from a relative asking them to come. One boy who is clearly very sick he sends to the hospital. Later when the group of kids is living in a camp outside Cleveland, the police are sent in to clear out the camp and ensure they move on. The kids refuse to leave and the police resort to using fire hoses on them. Even here, however, the film provides a fig leaf of sympathy for the authorities. As two of the cops are connecting a hose to a hydrant one says to the other, “This is a rotten trick if you ask me.” And the other responds, “How do you think I feel with two kids of my own at home?”
So this is a fine film documenting a problem of the time in which it was made but the real reason I enjoyed this film was for the performances of the three main kids, Frankie Darro, Edwin Phillips, and Dorothy Coonan. Scene after scene involves these three reacting to the hardships of the road and they are actors adept at pulling your heartstrings. Frankie Darro got his start as a child actor in silent films. In the 30’s he specialized in playing tough kids like in this film and “Mayor of Hell” where he played opposite James Cagney. His portrayal of Eddie here seems spot on, just how you would imagine a teen of the 30’s would behave, particularly in the opening scenes where he is living a carefree life. Then later when the troubles of the Depression hit his family he becomes a very sympathetic character thinking of his family rather than how his father’s loss of a job affects him.
The scene in which he sells his beat up old car for twenty-two bucks to give to his father is particularly effective. When the old man he’s sold the car two tells him that he’ll probably junk it and sell it for parts, he stares after it as it’s driven away as if he’s just had to put his dog down. He’s heart-broken but being a tough kid he can’t show it so when Tommy asks him what’s the matter, Eddie says, “Nothing. My nose is runnin’. What did you think?” Later when Eddie tosses the money into his father’s lap, dad asks where it came from. Eddie explains he sold his car and asks if his father is ‘sore’ at him. “No matter what you ever do, Edward, you’ll never make me feel as proud of you as I am at this minute,” his father replies. The scene then ends with Eddie tearing up and his father pulling him in for a hug. I’m sure there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when this originally played back in 1933. The episode ends with a beautiful bit of irony. When Eddie is closing up the now empty garage he whistles the tune “We’re in the Money”.
Edwin Phillips and Dorothy Coonan are equally as impressive. Phillip’s big scene comes when his lower leg has to be amputated. Eddie is trying to cheer him up and he’s trying to cheer himself up as well so he starts to think about all the chores he’ll be able to get out of. “I won’t have to run errands for mama or bring up coal.” “You’ll get out of doing a lot of things,” Eddie chimes in. “I’ll get out of doing a lot of things,” Tommy then says, “like kicking footballs, playing basketball, going ice skating, tumbling, walking…” and he starts to quietly sob. Another three hanky scene. I liked Phillips a lot in this movie. Unfortunately, this seems to be the only major role he had in his career.
Dorothy Coonan had an interesting career path. She started out as a Busby Berkeley dancer, appearing in both “Gold Diggers of 1933” and “42nd Street” in 1933. You get a small taste of this dancing background in “Wild Boys of the Road” when she tap dances on the street to earn loose change. “Wild Boys of the Road” was her first and only credited role in which she played a main character. During this movie, she caught the eye of Wild Boys’ director, William “Wild Bill” Wellman and they were married the next year. She retired from the screen after this and the couple remained married until Wellman’s death in 1975.
Tommy then chimes in with a sentiment that sounds like it could have come after The Great Recession of 2008 rather than The Great Depression of 1929.
The judge then responds that he’s going to help them. He’s going to make sure Eddie gets the job he was trying to get and he will find a place in a nice home where Sally can do a little house work. He even admits that it will be a little harder to place Tommy but he promises him that he’ll find a spot for him and he’ll be given a chance. “It’s simply that things are going to be better now, 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.” Looking back on this from 2014, it’s clear that The Great Depression was nowhere near over in ‘33 and it didn’t really end until the country entered World War II. So this tacked on happy ending feels false now but it makes the movie much more palatable. Still, I can’t help wondering what a movie with a more bleak ending would have been like, something like the ending of “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” where there is no respite for the protagonist. He’s condemned to live life in the shadows and steal to survive. That movie had a huge impact at the time, helping to change people’s minds about the legitimacy of the chain gang system in the south and leading to its eventual abolition. Would a bleak ending to “Wild Boys of the Road” have made a greater impact on audiences and lead to some sort of social change? Maybe not. Unemployment and homelessness was a bigger more intractable problem than the treatment of prisoners. But I can’t help feeling that “Wild Boys of the Road” is an excellent film that deserves a better ending than it was given.