I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the juvenile delinquent movies of the 50’s. I’m not exactly sure why but young troublemakers often make for fun movies. The 50’s may have mastered the genre but every decade in movie history has had its share of troubled teens. Today we head to the pre-code era of the 30’s and a film that could be seen as a grandaddy to the delinquent films of the 50’s. Directed by William Wellman, director of the first Best Picture winner Wings, it’s 1933’s Wild Boys of the Road.
Our story follows two teens, Eddie (Frankie Darro) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips). They’ve got themselves a car and a regular stream of young ladies willing to climb into the backseat with them. Life is good. That is, until Tommy reveals that he and his mother have been living off the community chest for the last few months. To make matters worse, Eddie soon learns that his father has been laid off, too. Both boys decide to drop out of school and get jobs, but works is scarce. Even selling the car only puts a measly $22 in their pockets. They soon decide their best move is to relieve their parents of the burden of caring for them. They end up jumping a train, hobo style, and heading east.
While on the train they meet another runaway, Sally (Dorothy Coonan). She is heading for Chicago to stay with her aunt. When they arrive in the Windy City, most of the other young transients on the train are hauled off by the fuzz, but since Dorothy has a letter from her aunt, she and the boys are able to stay. Too bad Sally’s aunt has her own problems with the police and is hauled off shortly after the trio arrives at her apartment.
They end up getting on the train once again, joined by a number of other youths (including one played by a young Sterling Holloway). They soon number in the hundreds. Their numbers are so big, in fact, that when confronted by authorities at another station, the boys rise up and fight back. After defeating the cops, they turn their attention to the train’s brakeman (an uncredited Ward Bond) who raped one of the other young female transients (Rochelle Hudson) during the battle with the cops. He ends being tossed off the train to his presumed death. The good times continue when the gang jumps off the train and Tommy ends up losing a leg as he struggles to get out of the way of an oncoming locomotive. As time moves on, Eddie, Tommy and Sally make their way to a “Sewer Pipe City” in Columbus, OH and eventually to New York City as they struggle to survive.
Wild Boys of the Road begins with a fairly playful style to it. Darro and Phillips certainly have a sort of Leo Gorcey / Huntz Hall Dead End Kids approach to their parts. The lightheartedness fades quickly, though. The film becomes pretty dark. It is a pre-code, after all. I mean we’ve got murder, rape, and gangs of hoods attacking the police. Not to mention one of the main characters getting his leg crushed by a train followed by a back alley amputation. It is a grim picture of the depression era and still packs quite a wallop today. Of course, the most graphic elements of the story, like the rape and the crushed leg, take place off camera; still, you can’t really say that the film pulls any punches. These moments are shocking and cast a darkness over the film that lingers with the viewer.
The young cast turns in some impressive performances. Darro especially gives his role a optimistic spirit that likely resonated with 1930’s audiences, despite the unpleasantness not only on the screen but also in the world that awaited them beyond the theater doors. I also really enjoyed Sterling Holloway who provides a small degree of comic relief to the film. Given the dark nature of the rest of the proceedings, he tickles the funny bone just enough to ease tension on the audience, but not come across as out-of-place.
You could probably make a case that the end of the film wraps everything up a bit too neatly. Not to give it all away, but what plays out on screen seems to point to a brighter future for Eddie, Tommy and Sally. Yet, it also leaves a lot up to the audience. After all that had transpired in the hour leading up to that, my brain wasn’t convinced that all turned out well after the screen faded to black. It looks like a happy ending on the surface, but I just wasn’t so sure. I suppose that’s a testament to the skill with which Wild Boys of the Road was crafted.