For some unknown reason, it’s at this time of year that I often turn my attention to films from the early 30s and B-movies of the 40s. The brisker running times of 60-70 minutes are often useful in the busy run up to Christmas!
Not very Christmassy, though, is Wild Boys of the Road, directed by William Wellman in 1933, and included in a set of his films entitled Forbidden Hollywood, volume 3. Wellman, rather like Michael Curtiz, was a remarkably fine filmmaker that probably is little known today outside of film fans simply because he moved from genre to genre. He directed the brillant war aviation drama Wings in 1927, and then turned his hand to westerns, war films, murder mysteries and even a film about God giving speeches on the radio!
Wild Boys of the Road, though, is a social conscience film which I remember first seeing on the BBC, probably about twenty years ago – although I’m guessing that version might have been edited given the fact that this pre-code era movie contains sexual assault, violence, murder, and a rather horrific accident. Indeed, the latter caused Screenland magazine to ask whether something could be done to “spare us the anguish” of the scene in question.
People unfamiliar with this era of film-making might be surprised at some of the content. As with many pre-code movies, it still packs quite a punch today, and its story of kids travelling from one town to the next by illegally riding on trains (and risking their lives all too often) because their parents are out of work and can no longer afford to feed them certainly has uneasy parallels with the migrant crisis in Europe today. At one point, the kids even make their own camp in a junk yard with permission from the owner, but are forced by the authorities to disperse and move on, with water hoses used to enforce it. Sound familiar?
Frankie Darro, the young star of the movie, spent much of the 1930s playing tough kids with a good heart, and that’s exactly what he does here, but it’s the little-known Edwin Phillips, with only three screen credits to his name, that steals the show as his best friend. Darro would fall out of favour in the 1940s, and was reduced to bit parts and stunt work by the end of that decade – ending up as the actor INSIDE Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet in 1956! Wellman directs this episodic tale with typical efficiency and flair, and manages to keep sentimentality at bay until the last few minutes and the story’s rather unlikely (but welcome) end.
It’s often easy to forget just how adult (and yet classy) cinema was in the early 1930s before the Production Code was enforced, and this fine drama about the effects of the depression on young Americans is just about as hard-hitting as it gets. Such a tale involving adults would be grim enough, but with this being about youngsters makes it one of the most devastating films of the period.