Monday, January 14, 2008

Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

The Siren may not have posted much over the last month, but she did manage to watch a fair number of movies, for a change. December was William Wellman month on TCM, a happy development. You can add William Wellman to the Siren's list of Favorite Directors With Shaky Auteur Status, along with Mitchell Leisen, Jean Negulesco and the award-laden but Cahiers-dissed William Wyler. The Siren saw Night Nurse ("You mother!") and rewatched a bunch of old favorites (no amount of Mr. C's pointing out what the Foreign Legion was really like can dim the Siren's love for Beau Geste). The revelation, however, was Wild Boys of the Road, an uneven but sporadically brilliant movie, sort of what might happen if you sliced out two scenes from an Andy Hardy film and used them to bookend They Shoot Horses, Don't They?.

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.


Cinebeats said...

I really enjoyed your overview of Wild Boys of the Road. I happened to catch this when it was played on TCM last month too. I had never seen it before, and I'm not very familiar with Wellman's films besides Beau Geste, The Ox-Bow Incident and A Star is Born, but I thought Wild Boys of the Road was fascinating and it had some incredibly memorable moments. The movie got me curious about the actress that played Sally (Dorothy Coonan Wellman) but I was disappointed to discover she hadn't made that many films.

Campaspe said...

K., I think being married to Wellman was a 24/7 job, not to mention all those kids, which she had in alternating order, girl-boy-girl-boy all down to no. 7. Wellman was evidently crazy about her (and she had presence, didn't she?) but he was also quite honest about how hard it was to be married to him.

Cinebeats said...

It seems like a lot of good actresses ended up married to directors or producers, having kids and giving up acting during this time period, or maybe it's just every time period? On the other hand, when actresses marry other actors they often continue working. I guess other actors are just more encouraging since they share similar jobs? Who knows, but I do agree that Dorthy had presence and she was really cute all dressed up in drag. It's no wonder Wellman married her!

Karen said...

I was so impressed with this film when TCM screened it. (I really loved Wellman Month, and found the insights from Wellman jr more fascinating than I'd expected.) Sullivan's Travels is one of my favorite films of all time--I love how Sturges slips in the social commentary while purportedly taking the side of feel-good comedy--but I felt, as you did, that WBotR absolutely got right what was slicked up in ST, not to mention that Coonan in drag looked a mite more authentic than Veronica Lake in same.

I thought that the film was incredibly subversive in its championing of the teenagers' Hooverville. The film just draws you in--it starts out Andy Hardy and, before you know it, ends up Tom Joad. There's so little relief in it; when the yard cops let the trio go to Sally's aunt, I figured she'd turn them away. It never occurred to me that she would take them in but then get pinched herself. The feeling of hard times is so pervasive. When Tommy steals the prosthetic leg for Eddie, Wellman and the screenwiter Baldwin don't rest with the moral ambiguity of theft for a potential greater good; it turns out the leg doesn't fit anyway, and Eddie is in even more pain.

On another note--Beau Geste!! *sigh* The manly beauty of Gary Cooper and the plummy pear-shaped tones of Ray Milland. "A Viking's funeral! Was there a dog at his feet?" "Markoff!"

I think I'm tearing up already....

Campaspe said...

Hmm, now you have me thinking about actresses & marriage. For some reason I am thinking about poor Barbara Payton, who might have been better off just marrying up and getting out of the business--some of the women who left acting were no doubt glad they did. There were a few who married industry types and continued with careers, like Myrna Loy marrying Arthur Hornblow and Joan Bennett and Walter Wanger ... but you still have me thinking.

Karen, one of these days we will trip over one another at the Film Forum or something, if we haven't already. I'm glad you realized I wasn't dissing Sullivan's Travels, which is a masterpiece; I was just struck by how Wellman's movie somehow made you feel the physical risks they were taking. Instead of views that cut off the railcars you'd usually get enough of the huge car to sense how the kids might be crushed.

Did you read Goatdog's review? he had such a lovely take on that leg scene. I was really struck by how downbeat and pessimistic the movie was, and how overtly political, especially in the episode of the child hobo camp. It would make a fascinating double bill with the end-of-decade Grapes of Wrath, where a lot of critics (like the late George Fasel) contended that Steinbeck's message got considerably diluted.

Peter said...

I saw Wild Boys of the Road a few years ago on TCM. I had been intrigued for about thirty years after seeing an excerpt from Richard Schickel's documentary on Wellman.

goatdog said...

You sure know how to make a guy blush, Campaspe. Thanks for the compliments, and I'm glad you got to see this. It was a big hit when I showed it at my theater a couple years ago.

Have you seen Heroes for Sale? If not, I'm sending you a copy post-haste--it's more fodder for the argument that there was a big difference between films made before 1934 and films made after then. It simply could not have been made later than July 1934.

Karen said...

Oh! Heroes for Sale was quite the eye-opener, eh? It was a little like a proto-Best Years of our Lives, wasn't it, with the consequences of war laid out so brutally--yet even more so. War hero to junkie to businessman to convict to hobo...complete with neighbor Max's socialist rants as seasoning. HUAC would have been all OVER this, wouldn't it! (Incidentally, if you're looking for colorful characters, check out the IMDb biography of Wilson Mixner, one of the screenwriters, and read his personal quotes.)

Heroes for Sale includes some more Wellman realism: according to the AFI Catalog, "According to press notes, director William Wellman used real hoboes for the fight scene and real laundry workers for the laundry scenes."

And, of course, it has Richard Barthelmess, one of the actors TCM has taught me to appreciate far better. I think that, until a few years back, I hadn't seen him in anything other than Only Angels Have Wings and Broken Blossoms, but TCM has shown me the light. Have you seen the amazing The Last Flight? I think it may be the best depiction of "the lost generation" I've ever seen.

Siren, it would be a pleasure beyond measure to run into you at Film Forum one day!

Exiled in NJ said...

Watching it, my associative mind kept seeing Eddie and Sally growing up to be the bank robbing couple of Gun Crazy; then taking them back to pre-puberty, I saw them as John & Pearl, escaping the rath of Preacher Powell in Laughton's Night of the Hunter, a 50s film that went to great lengths to show its time frame.

What really made me sit up was going on location. I love shots of New York City in many late forties films, or films in New York in the early 60's, or the opening shot of Double Indemnity with the trolley tracks in LA. The freight cars in Wellman's film are windows on a past.

Campaspe said...

Peter, I caught the Schickel documentary (apparently somewhat updated) just before Wild Boys; the main scene they show is the leg accident and it just holds up incredibly well.

M. & K., I haven't seen Heroes for Sale but you have certainly gotten me interested. I also REALLY want to see The Last Flight; I understand Helen Chandler is wonderful in it too, nothing like her drippy turn in Dracula.

Exiled, I also love early-city location shots so much. Have you seen Criss-Cross? there is wonderful location stuff of old LA, including the long-gone trolleys and houses that are somewhat like San Francisco.

Karen said...

Well, Siren, I have The Last Flight saved on my DVR! If you find yourself in the Morningside Heights nabe, you're more than welcome to come watch it. It's....different.

Campaspe said...

Morningside Heights? Once upon a shack-up the Siren was quartered at Broadway and LaSalle. Sometimes I miss the old nabe, even if I did get burglarized.

goatdog said...

I have a DVD of The Last Flight. It's... weird. It would be really great, I think, but William Dieterle does a really crappy job directing it. Sort of a "hey, look at me wave my camera around for no reason!" style of direction. But the sort of dreamy acting is superb, especially Chandler. While the other actors seem spaced out by their experiences and all the alcohol they're drinking, Chandler is on a different planet.

Karen said...

Yeah, The Last Flight's weird, goatdog; no denying! There's that whole tic where everyone repeats what the other person has said before responding to it. But I think the reactions in the scenes at the hospital, the almost nihilistic use of drink, the humorless laughter, the aimless wandering, the reluctance to go home--these are probably dead-on instances of the post-WW1 anomie, and I'm not sure I've seen a film that does it better. It may not succeed completely as a film, but it creates a mood unlike any I've seen elsewhere. And Helen Chandler IS simply amazing.

surlyh said...

I also enjoyed Wild Boys (and I happened to see it screened by goatdog).

Being a Chicago native, I have a special fondness for Wellman's Roxie Hart. I was lucky to attend a screening of the restored silent version of Chicago at a film festival a few years back. It is is quite good, and I was suprised at just how racy it was. Both films are better than the recent musical version of the story, which was simultaneously smug and ridiculous in its depiction of the era, and which featured the frenetic cutting that ruins most modern musicals.

Campaspe said...

Surlyh, it's always a great day when I find you in my comments section, and I'm delighted you are still keeping up with the archives. A recommendation from you is something to take seriously so I will definitely try to catch Roxie. I agree about Chicago, btw--the stage show is brilliant but not only is the editing obnoxious in the movie, they took the wittiest number in the show ("The Cell-Block Tango") and turned it into a dirge.

surlyh said...

I was unable to comment for a while (due no doubt to my ineptitude at negotiating the google switchover nonsense). My frustration with that and life in general led to me not being as frequent a reader. I'm back...and happy to be back. In fact, I have a lot of catching up to do.

Having been away so long
I have missed the Siren's song
But Surly Hack
Is welcomed back
Until something else goes wrong

Bruce Whitney Nelson said...

“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 happy ending was nevertheless significant and intentionally political, and whether it was Wellman or Warner Brothers, somebody very deliberately meant that ending to be propaganda for the Roosevelt administration. The NRA's Blue Eagle over the judge's shoulder might seem more “subtle,” as you put it, than a picture of FDR, but that is only because we have forgotten the Blue Eagle; in 1933, it was not subtle at all. Everybody was familiar with the Eagle. (It's eerie that the blue symbol looks black in its brief appearance in this black-and-white film, making it seem, in retrospect, not just a little fascistic.)

The kindly judge, who not only let's the kids off but offers them work and shelter, is as clearly a stand-in for FDR as is the FDR look-alike who appears like a hallucinatory vision to Henry Fonda's Tom Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath.” The NRA emblem affirms the message: “Yes, we have social problems, but under FDR things are going to get better soon, because we're from the government, we care, and we're here to help.”

Some other little details:

1) Ward Bond's character is a brakeman, not a guard. There are no “guards,” as that would imply that there is some kind of official structure. He is a railroad employee, taking advantage of kids who have no right to be on the train and therefore have no rights, period.
2) You are probably right that the girl he rapes is not Sally, although I had (mistakenly?) thought it was her.
3) You must have shielded your eyes when the boys gang up on the rapist, for they do not actually beat him to death although he dies and his death is not merely “implied”; rather, we see that the door to the car is wide open during the fight so that the rapist falls out of the moving car. The boys stick their heads out, looking back down the tracks. Someone then points out that they are going to be blamed for the man's death, which is why the kids scramble to get off the train BEFORE it pulls into the next station. And that's when Tommy has his accident, because the laws of physics make it more dangerous to get off a fast train than a slow one. He keeps running when he hits the ground and, because, as you rightly say, he doesn't look ahead, he slams into a metal sign.

Campaspe said...

Bruce, I'm sorry that I only just now saw your comment. Thanks for clarifying the rape episode; but you missed my sarcasm in the "subtle" comment. Indeed the NRA eagle is prominent and politically significant, although to my eyes it doesn't look fascistic at all.

egads said...

There's a treat for Dorothy Coonan 'Sally' fans here: