Thursday 18 June 2009

Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

Director: William A Wellman
Stars: Frankie Darro, Edwin Phillips and Dorothy Coonan

William A Wellman was a major director of precodes, to the degree that TCM dedicated a whole box set to his films. Known as Wild Bill Wellman because of his larger than life personality and exploits, in film he spoke to social issues with a calmer and more incisive touch than most. His films from this period are fascinating stories that are at once very much dated to the times they're set in but still timeless enough to be thoroughly enjoyable today. I have problems with most of them, but that doesn't mean I haven't enjoyed them thoroughly.

This one follows a couple of high school sophomores at the heart of the depression. As we begin they're heading into the Sophomore Frolic (boys 75c, girls free) with their girls, but appear to be very different characters. Eddie Smith is the dynamic go getter type, quick and talented. He's engaged already even though he's still in high school and it's his car that they're travelling in, a wild vehicle called Leapin' Lena (with 'I ain't much but I'm paid for' on the back). In the hands of Frankie Darro, he reminds very much of Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy on more than a few occasions (another Wellman film, incidentally), though naturally nobody could ever match Cagney.

On the other hand Tommy Gordon is a pain in the ass. He can't pay his way into the dance so has to sneak in in his date's dress and hat. Even then he won't even dance with her, let alone play along with all her amorous advances in the back seat of Leapin' Lena. He seems to be a complainer and a follower and a complete waste of space, but before too long, we realise what's really going on. The thing is that Tommy is broke, not just to the degree that he doesn't have any money right now but utterly broke. His dad is dead, his mother has worked four days in the last five months and they're eating out of the community chest. In that context 75c for a dance is money that really doesn't need to be spent.

Being a doer, Eddie plans the solution. His dad has a good position at a cement company and he'll be able to take care of everything, right? Well, no, because this is the Great Depression and so by the time Eddie gets home, his dad is already out of a job too. Before long, the rent is two months in arrears, the bills are unpaid and debts are adding up. With Eddie's dad standing in line for food and Tommy's mother just about able to get along on her own with the money she gets from a roomer, the boys want to relieve their families of the burden of keeping them.

They've already sold Leapin' Lena for cash so they hop a freight and go looking for work in Chicago. Of course there aren't enough jobs for men in Chicago, let alone kids, and the authorities are waiting right there at the freight yards to pick them all up the moment they arrive. Luckily they've met up with a girl from Seattle who has the same plan and who's travelling incognito as a boy. She's Sally, played by Wellman's wife, Dorothy Coonan, and she has an aunt in Chicago that she can meet up with. So life is good again.

But this isn't meant to be a happy film, it's a social film whose point is to highlight how bad everything is but offer some hope as a way out. So Eddie and Tommy get run through no end of wringers. Right after they get there, Aunt Carrie gets raided by the police because she's running a brothel, so off they go again. They hop freight trains, they panhandle, they try to find work. They do whatever they can to get along and live wherever they must, whether that be Sewer Pipe City in Cleveland or the New York Municipal Garbage Dump.

And of course at the end of the day, they find their moment of hope only to have it dashed, then resurrected as a banner of hope. What Wellman did better than any of his peers was to make this sort of thing work without seeming trite or too unbelievable. Sure, Eddie is a victim of his hope so gets into trouble through naivete rather than real criminal intent, but he then digs a hole of his own making before finally allowing himself to come clean to the right people at the right time with just the right outburst and let the future open. Like many of Wellman's movies, it's a tragedy of progression with a glimmer of hope, and like many of his films it's recommended viewing without being an undying classic.

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