After watching a Depression-era movie the Siren often turns to one of her favorite works of social history, Since Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen. Published in 1940, the book has the advantage of immediacy, and the Siren hasn't read anything that betters Allen's descriptions of daily life in the Terrible Thirties. Still, it must be admitted that Allen is not especially good on the movies, drawn as he is to prestige pictures. Here's his introduction to an aside on Hollywood's output:
As for the movies, so completely did they dodge the discussions and controversies of the day--with a few exceptions, such as the March of Time series, the brief newsreels, and an occaisonal picture like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and They Won't Forget--that if a dozen or two feature pictures, selected at random, were to be shown to an audience of 1960, that audience would probably derive from them not the faintest idea of the ordeal through which the United States went in the nineteen-thirties.To which the Siren responds, "yes and no." Back we go to the Pre-Code debate below--the crackdown in 1934 had the not-so-coincidental effect of trimming back overt social critiques. From that point on, escapism became the far more dominant mode for big-budget Hollywood productions. But if you watched enough genre movies, you still might get a clear enough picture, and if you watched pre-1934 films you would definitely know how hard the times were. And Joseph I. Breen locked up a lot of Pre-Code movies, so Allen's memory of early 1930s cinema may have faded. Wild Boys of the Road, from 1933, offers a particularly bitter and, the Andy Hardy ending perhaps excepted, accurate indictment of the Depression's cruelties.
The beginning of the movie might fit more comfortably in Only Yesterday, Allen's history of the 1920s. Eddie (Frankie Darro) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips) are teenagers concerned with cars, girls and getting into the local dance. Tommy, whose mother takes in boarders, is barely clinging to the middle class. Eddie has his own car and a father with a steady job. But Eddie soon comes home to find his parents talking quietly and desperately at the dining room table: the father has lost his job. Eddie sells his beloved car for scrap, but despite handing the $22 he makes over to his father, he can't find anything steady to help at home. Unwilling to become a burden on their parents, he and Tommy decide to light out for the territories by hopping freight trains.
Wellman filmed the boy's wanderings on location, and the decision gives the long middle section of the film a depth and darkness the Siren has seldom seen in American movies of the era. The two main actors were quite petite, and Wellman plays this up when filming the dangerous task of getting on and off the trains. The sense of peril, of the speed and size and impossibility of stopping the moving train, makes you realize how something like Sullivan's Travels has glossed over the difficulties. (Wild Boys renders train-hopping several times more terrifying, for example, than watching Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones.) The cars themselves are dark, cold and offer no protection from predators.
Once on the train the boys meet fellow drifter Sally, who is hopping freight trains disguised as a boy. (Sally is played by young Dorothy Coonan, whose later marriage to Wellman lasted 42 years and produced seven children). There's a humorous bit where Sally, unjustly accused of stealing food, lands a hard blow on Eddie's face that sends him scampering to the other side of the boxcar, even as he realizes he's just been hit by a girl. But Wellman still films this in a way that conveys Sally's vulnerablity--she's horizontal, on one side of the frame, face out of sight, two boys looming over her. You sense the physical dangers for these kids at every second. Later, when the threesome join an expanding army of transient children, Sally's comparative luck is re-emphasized as another girl, left alone in a boxcar, is raped by a guard (Ward Bond, in one of his few turns as a rotten apple). When the crime is discovered the boys, already forming their own rough social code, surround and beat the guard (to death, it's implied).
Attempts to find help get nowhere. Sally, Eddie and Tommy descend upon her aunt. The aunt, it becomes clear, has a brothel to run, but at least she seems willing to help. But police raid the place and the kids must go on the run again.
The number of kids on the train grows until Wellman captures an army swarming off the boxcars in an unforgettable image of social breakdown--his camera never lets you forget that these are children. The fear you feel for them reaches a harrowing climax in a scene frequently excerpted in Wellman tributes. Tommy is jumping off the train with the others, but like a much younger kid he doesn't watch where he's going. The boy's head strikes a metal crossing sign with enough force to send him to the ground, dazed, as a train approaches. Tommy tries to crawl away, but he can't make it in time, and his leg is crushed.
The Siren can't imagine watching this film in 1933, especially as what it depicts is no exaggeration. Allen tells us that by the beginning of that year, estimates put the number of transients at about a million: "Among them were large numbers of boys, and girls disguised as boys. According to the Children's Bureau, there were 200,000 children thus drifting about the United States." Adults having failed them, the kids in Wild Boys form their own city in the sewer pipes, taking care of each other in a set-up that probably gave the socialist-hating Breen the willies. The brief period of safety is broken up by cops, acting on orders to clean out the area. The police are sympathetic--"How do you think I feel?" snaps one, "I have kids at home myself"--but they still turn on the firehoses, and the central trio must move on again.
Toward the end there's a James Cagney moment, which Goatdog nails beautifully in his review (by far the best review available on the Web, by the way):
When the police chase Eddie into a movie theater after he inadvertently gets involved in a holdup, the theater in question is showing another Warner Bros. release, the Lloyd Bacon–directed Busby Berkeley musical Footlight Parade. This goes far beyond cross-promotion and into a covert criticism of escapist entertainment (perhaps specifically answered by Preston Sturges with Sullivan's Travels). Footlight Parade is about Chester Kent (James Cagney), who creates live musical prologues for films; during the chase, Eddie ends up onstage where such a prologue might occur, James Cagney looming over him mid-tapdance. Eddie has become one of Kent's prologues, a bit of escapist entertainment for the audience members, who get an extra vicarious thrill out of Eddie's suffering.
The movie winds up with Eddie, Tommy and Sally before a judge. Society, having manifestly failed the kids for the rest of the movie's running time, is suddenly ready to step up to the plate. All three kids will be taken care of, happy days are here again. As Goatdog notes, no one says the name "Roosevelt" but they might as well have his picture looming over the judge's shoulder instead of the equally subtle NRA poster. This ending was altered by Warner Brothers from a far more downbeat original, but Wellman manages a bittersweet coda. Eddie, overcome with happiness, steps outside the courtroom and does a couple of back flips. He turns around, still giddy--and meets the eyes of Tommy, whose leg is gone forever. Tommy gives a melancholy smile, Eddie returns it--but the point is made. Some marks from bad times are permanent.