Saturday, May 13, 2023

#2,909. Wild Boys of the Road (1933) - The Films of William A. Wellman


In the DVD commentary for Wild Boys of the Road, William A. Wellman, Jr., son of the film’s director, said his father considered this 1933 movie one of the ten best he ever made. Now, I haven’t seen enough of Wellman’s work to make a similar claim, but what I can say is that this movie is something special.

As the film opens, high school buddies Eddie (Frankie Darro) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips) are escorting their dates to a dance. When Tommy is caught sneaking in without paying, they all decide to leave. Later that night, Eddie learns that Tommy’s mother hasn’t been working, and money is tight. So, Eddie agrees to talk to his father (Grant Mitchell) about finding Tommy a job.

But when Eddie returns home, le learns that his dad has been laid off, and they have to cut back. To help out, Eddie sells his beloved car, but as the weeks drag on, both Eddie and Tommy decide to try their luck at finding work in another town, in part because it would mean one less mouth for their folks to feed. Once they land a job, they will send money home to help out.

After sneaking aboard a freight train heading east, they meet Sally (Dorothy Coonan), a fellow teen who is headed to Chicago to live with her aunt. Before long, Eddie, Tommy, and Sally are part of an entire gang of kids, all of whom hang out in railway yards in the hopes of hopping a train without drawing attention to themselves. Harassed at almost every stop by the railroad police, the kids do what they can to keep moving, all the while believing the next town will be better.

A freak accident that eventually cripples one of their number leads the kids to set up their own town in an abandoned steam pipe yard. But how long will the authorities allow them to stay there?

This won’t be the last stop for Eddie, Tommy, or Sally, or for any of the kids, and one of the best things about Wild Boys of the Road is how wonderfully director Wellman and screenwriter Earl Baldwin (who was inspired by Daniel Ahem’s book Desperate Youth) bring us into the world of these youngsters. At the start, Eddie and Tommy are regular high schoolers from an average middle class town. Eddie is particularly bright and intuitive; upon learning that his dad is out of work, he convinces his mother (Claire McDowell) to cancel the new suit they ordered for him because he “didn’t want it anyway”. The scene where Eddie sells his car is especially moving, and leads to a touching moment between he and his father. All of the young actors deliver fine performances, but Darro stands above them all, and it isn’t hard to figure out why the “Wild Boys” look to Eddie as their spiritual leader.

As touching as the early scenes are, the rest of Wild Boys of the Road is difficult to sit through, as the gang (which includes a young Sterling Holloway) continually heads east, all the while drawing the ire of the railroad workers. A scene where the kids finally realize they outnumber the workers and fight back is particularly satisfying. Of course, this is one of the few high points; a scene in which a character is injured is jarring, to say the least, as in one where another girl is raped by a railroad worker.

The film’s final 5-10 minutes may come off as schmaltzy to some viewers, wrapping things up a little too neatly, but having spent time with these kids on their journey, I couldn’t help but smile, and might have even shed a tear or two in these closing minutes.

I know William Wellman has directed some classics over the years, and what I’ve seen from his filmography I have enjoyed, from the silent Best Picture winner Wings to Cagney’s star-making movie The Public Enemy, and from Beau Geste to The Ox-Bow Incident. I hope to see a lot more of his work in the coming years. That said, regardless of how strong any future film might be, it will have to go a long way to bump Wild Boys of the Road from my top 10 Wellman list!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

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