Excuse the absence, these past two weeks have been long for Miss Fierce. They also encompassed a birthday. . .and what better way to celebrate nearing my dotage than to watch a pre-code film about teenaged hobos!
Wild Boys of the Road, was directed by William Wellman in 1933. If that name sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because he helmed the first film to win an Oscar for Best Picture, “Wings,” back in 1927. Interestingly, it was also the only silent film to ever be credited with the award. But I digress!
Eddie (Frankie Darro) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips) are best friends, growing up amidst the pitfalls of normal middle-class adolescence (dating, cars, school dances) until both their families experience financial destitution. Hitherto blissfully unaware of the Depression’s realities, the pair is thrown into an entirely different world over night when they decide to run away, so as not to further burden their parents.
On their travels, they meet up with a host of other young people, all pushed out onto the road by the Depression. Most notable amongst these wayward youngsters is Sally (Dorothy Coonan Wellman, the director’s future wife), a freckle-faced girl disguised as a boy, whom they encounter whilst riding the rails. The trio forms an unlikely familial unit, with Eddie assuming the “fatherly” role of leader, as they navigate an unforgiving territory in search of respite from crushing poverty.
At just 68 minutes, “Wild Boys of the Road,” is a fast faced, blistering tale of a generation grown before its time. While telescopic in nature, with almost every disaster imaginable befalling the main characters, it is nevertheless true to its intention, that is, to raise of the question of how economic hardship marginalizes the most voiceless aspect of our society: children.
From the start, it is clear that Eddie possesses the qualities necessary to survive in hostile environment. Street smart, he is able to secure penniless Tommy’s entry into a school dance, and later on, he precociously siphons gasoline from a nearby automobile in order to propel his own, rather dilapidated, runabout. Upon learning that his father has lost his job, Eddie immediately takes charge, selling his prized car, the “Leapin’ Lena.” While professing that his act of altruism is no great feat, we are privy to a normal teenaged reaction, as he chokes up on his way home from the junkyard. Later, when handing over the hard-bargained $22 to his father, a play scuffle ensues, ending in a poignant sob from Eddie.
Selling the Leapin’ Lena // At the junkyard // Small comfort
Although essentially pragmatic and scrappy in nature, Eddie is still far from being an adult. In Wild Boys of the Road , children are forced to handle situations they are ill-equipped for emotionally, in spite of whatever other resources they are shown to possess. For instance, when they boys meet Sally, she is escaping from a situation similar to their own: a large family who can no longer afford her care. Brave enough to hop trains, strong enough to engage in fistfights, and smart enough to hide her gender, she is still naive in her aim to reach a long-lost aunt in Chicago, whom she hopes will take her in.
When Eddie, Sally, and Tommy arrive at the Aunt’s doorstep, they discover that the woman is running a house of ill-repute, something they had not counted on. While she is quite willing aid them, the obvious impracticality of sheltering children in a bordello is shown not five minutes after their arrivalwhen a police raid occurs. The kids escape out the window, nicking a large chocolate cake in the process. The viewer smiles, albeit it wryly, upon realizing that this whimsical touch is the only practical action of a childish and impractical plan.
Sally // Hooker with a heart of gold // Takes the cake
With no where to go, they again take to the rails, amassing a band of other forgotten children along the way. While there is companionship in numbers, safety still eludes them, as they are constantly subjected to “railroad dicks,” who attempt to round them up like livestock and pen those who cannot provide proof of a stable residency. Worse still, is the shocking (by 1933 standards) rape of a young girl hobo during a massive battle between the children and the rail police. When the others discover what has happened, they confront the man, and he is accidentally killed in the ensuing scuffle.
Discovered // Cornered // Punished
Now outlaws, the wild boys have no choice but to stay away from the railroad. Instead, they set up a tenement camp called “Sewer City,” which humorously mimics a real life tableau of “playing house.” To earn money, Eddie organizes the children into teams that take turns panhandling different parts of the surrounding area. Inside Sewer City, makeshift dwellings are erected, and two enterprising children even set up a laundry business!
Unfortunately, the denizens of the town next to Sewer City have grown weary of the strident presence of homelessness. When Eddie orchestrates the theft of a prosthetic leg for Tommy, who has lost his limb in a horrifyingly graphic train accident, the police are forced to clean out the encampment. Almost against their own will, the officers turn high-powered fire hoses on the children.
Sewer City // The face-off
Disbanded, the denizens of Sewer City scatter and go their own way. Convinced that jobs are plentiful in New York City, Eddie, Tommy, and Sally head to the east coast. Once there, they are further subjected to the ghosts that have haunted them for the entirety of the film: starvation and callous disregard.
In a stroke of luck, Eddie does manage to wrangle himself a job as an elevator operator on the condition that he arrives to work with an alpaca coat. Desperate to find the money for the coat, the children unknowingly get caught up in a hoodlum’s scheme to rob a cinema. A chase ensues, and all three are arrested. Brought before the judge, they stalwartly refuse to give their side of the story, convinced that nothing said will change the circumstances they find themselves in. As Tommy and Sally cast downward glances, their leader, Eddie, finally breaks down. In a heart wrenching show of exposition, Eddie explains to the judge (and the audience) the real problem at hand:
I’ll tell you why we can’t go home. Because our folks are poor. They can’t get jobs, and there isn’t enough to eat! What good will it do you to send us home to starve? You say you gotta send us to jail to keep us off the street. Well that’s a lie! You’re sending us to jail ‘cause you don’t want to see us. You wanna forget us. Well you can’t. Cuz I’m not the only one. There’s thousands just like me, and there’s more hittin’ the road every day!
Tommy chimes in with:
You read in the papers about giving people help. The banks get it. The soldiers get it. The breweries get it. And they’re always yelling about giving it to the farmers. What about us? We’re kids!
Having extracted this unorthodox “confession,” the judge reveals himself to be the first adult willing to be an advocate for the children. With the spectre of the NRA looming large behind him, he vows to help find Eddie, Tommy, and Sally gainful employment on one condition: that they return home after earning enough money for their fare. They readily agree, and the picture ends, neatly wrapped in a bow.
Judge & Jury // We do our part // Resolution
However contrived the ending may be, Wild Boys of the Road , still remains a valid exploration of a pressing problem. That no real sweeping solution to the issue of child homelessness is presented can hardly be surprising given the brevity of the film, and the treatment of its production. It was clearly not being marketed as an A picture, despite Wellman’s credentials and very competent direction.
Visually, the juxtaposition of adult absorption with childlike neediness is served well by Wellman’s sweeping camera work and devotion to long shots. After all, the world of the wild boys is vast and overwhelming, marked by train-dotted skylines and mobs of hostile grownups. Even as a band of world-weary hobos, these kids cannot compete with the crushing multitude of adults who simply do not care. Well meaning individuals, such as the prostitute-aunt, or the doctor who amputates Tommy’s leg (but leaves him with no post-surgical assistance) or the reluctant police officer (who doesn’t want to turn on the hoses, but has his orders), are possessed only of impotent actions that leave no room for shelter or respite. In a perfect demonstration of this contrast, we see a bystander egging the boys on when they decide to fight an eviction from a train. As Wellman pans the scene of the ferocious battle, he cuts back to the man, lazily taking in the scene despite his sympathy for the children.
On a more granular level, Wild Boys of the Road, also works as a buddy film, and as many examples of the genre can give evidence to, there are requisite homoerotic undertones at work. From the first frames, we are presented with the idea of Eddie and Tommy as a twosome, and that initial image carries with us throughout the picture. When others are introduced into their dynamic, it always produces a measure of discomfort bordering on the disastrous. For instance, when Eddie and Tommy double date to their school dance, Tommy is saddled with Harriet, whose advances he must continually fend off. Although Eddie is more satisfied with his date, he still refuses to leave Tommy when it is discovered he does not have the required entrance fare. When Tommy is eventually kicked out of the dance, once again, it is Eddie who comes to his rescue.
As previously stated, what gives Wild Boys of the Road its romantic glint is not the pairing of Eddie and Tommy themselves, but the reaction caused by the inclusion of “the other” into their world. The most obvious case of this is the narrative entrance of Sally. At once, we witness Tommy’s anger and annoyance at Eddie’s insistence that they share food with her. As time moves on, the pairing becomes a triangle, with Eddie’s affections wavering between the two. Although there is no open hostility between Sally and Tommy, uncomfortable “three’s a crowd” awkwardness casts a pall over their interactions.
Eddie & Tommy
The level of emotional connection and responsibility that Eddie feels for Tommy is no more viscerally depicted than when Tommy loses his leg. As the children disembark from a moving train, Sally stumbles on the track. Eddie instinctively helps her, guiding Sally to safety, while Tommy is left to fend for himself for the first time in the film. As he jumps from the train, he accidentally runs into a metal sign post. Disoriented, Tommy falls on the track as an oncoming train barrels towards him. The cuts alternate, between Eddie and Sally looking on from the sidelines of safety, to Tommy, a prone target. They increase in pace until the screeching of wheels accompanies a cutaway to a reaction shot. Without ever seeing the actual incident, we know that Tommy’s leg has been run over, and what has been left to the imagination is more gruesome than anything the viewer could witnessed. We are also given a clear picture of division. Eddie has visually abandoned Tommy for Sally, albeit only briefly.
Approaching // Reaction // Result
It is this crucial lapse in devotion on Eddie’s part that sets up the climax of the film; the boys’ eviction from Sewer City. Motivated by guilt over Tommy’s accident, his stealing of the prosthetic leg turns out to be the straw that breaks the town’s back. The police are called in, and Sewer City is disincorporated.
The act is also precipitous of one of the few, gripping close-ups of the film. As Tommy is about to have his leg amputated by a doctor, Eddie clasps his hand tightly, his grief barely concealed, while Tommy makes an attempt at levity:
And won’t I laugh at Harriet! I won’t have to argue with her anymore about dancing. I won’t even have to learn.
But upon realizing that this also means he won’t ever play football, basketball, or go ice skating again, the two break down in tears.
Interestingly, Sally never gives the impression of wanting to isolate Eddie or of possessing any jealously regarding his bond with Tommy. She seems only glad to have companionship on what would otherwise have been a lonely journey. In the last shot of the film, all three leave the courthouse to find that night has been exchanged for a bright, sunny day. In the kind of spontaneous performance particular to children, Eddie casts off his worries and performs a series of back-flips for his travelling buddies, before walking soberly up to Tommy and embracing him. Sally looks on, happily, from the side, before all three drive off in a cab.
Headstand // Tommy // Unbreakable Bonds
There is always a question of intent when we quantify unspoken emotion as romantic, however since film is a medium than gains expression through exposure, these interpretations are no less valid than that of the screenwriter or director or actors or any number of people involved in a work’s production. Just as film remains a collaborative art form, so to does film criticism, and the cultural significance culled from a modern perspective can live side by side with the more traditional view that Eddie and Tommy are merely bonded by friendship. In either case the connection between them is real, although given the time period, slightly more guarded and cautiously sketched. The beauty of this is that much like the harrowing scene of Tommy losing his leg, we are given breadth to process and the will to interpret freely. This is what engages us as viewers, more so than any script that spells each scene out with icy precision. Strict adherents to genre and lovers of Freytag’s triangle may disagree, but I personally believe this makes for a much more satisfying viewer experience.