Friday, September 11, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

This post is my contribution to the William Wellman Blogathon being hosted from September 10th through 13th by Now Voyaging. Over 50 bloggers are signed up to participate! There have already been many excellent posts about this wonderful director's films, with more to come, so be sure to head over to Now Voyaging and check out the links.

This seems to be the year to celebrate William A. Wellman, thanks to a marvelous retrospective at UCLA and the release of William Wellman Jr.'s book WILD BILL WELLMAN: HOLLYWOOD REBEL. The focus on Wellman continues with this terrific blogathon hosted by Now Voyaging, and there is also a chance for some of us to see William Wellman Jr. speak at the Lone Pine Film Festival next month.

I think my favorite aspect of William Wellman Jr.'s memoir is his parents' charming love story. Dorothy "Dottie" Coonan was a teenaged dancer in Busby Berkeley musicals when the senior Wellman spotted her on the Warner Bros. lot, and the oft-married, significantly older "Wild" Bill changed his ways. The Wellmans had a long, happy marriage, with the director embracing a new lifestyle as the father of seven children; he made it a point to be home for dinner with the family and enjoyed taking his whole crew along on location trips.

Not long after Bill and Dottie met, he began preparing to film the "ripped from the headlines" Depression drama WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (1933), about teenaged vagabonds fighting for survival. As Wellman Jr. tells it, producer Hal Wallis wanted to cast an actress like Jean Parker or Helen Mack in the key role as tomboy Sally. The director, however, had other ideas, and cast his freckle-faced love, Dottie, in the role, saying, "They're prettier than you, but you are prettier to me."

Dottie agreed to do the film and is absolutely wonderful, but she had no interest in an acting career. It would be her last screen appearance until playing a nurse in her husband's film THE STORY OF G.I. JOE (1945) a dozen years later. They're pictured here together on the set of WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD.

WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD is a gritty drama which takes place in the heart of the Depression. Eddie (Frankie Darro) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips) initially live the lives of ordinary high school kids, going to a dance and generally goofing off, but Tommy's mother is struggling to make ends meet, and soon Eddie's father (Grant Mitchell) is laid off. The boys ultimately decide their parents will have an easier time of it financially if they have fewer mouths to feed, and the boys hit the road in search of jobs.

The boys hop freight trains and travel the country, but jobs are hard to come by, and the police and railroad detectives are often waiting at stops to roust them off the trains.

Along the way, Eddie and Tommy meet Sally, who hides her braids under a cap so as not to call attention to her gender. Sally is hoping her aunt (Minna Gombell) in Chicago will take her in, and indeed, the aunt greets her with open arms -- and then the aunt's apartment, which is clearly a house of ill repute, is promptly raided. A very "pre-Code" moment.

The trio suffer some brutal experiences, including one character losing a leg and a friend (Ann Hovey) being attacked by a brutal railroad man (Ward Bond), but it's quite compelling viewing. The brisk 68-minute pace keeps things moving along quickly, which is a good thing or the viewer might become as downhearted as the characters. The location photography, including at the Southern Pacific Yard in Glendale, adds to the film's realism.

Life seems increasingly hopeless when the friends are arrested after inadvertently becoming involved in a robbery. Wellman's original ending, scripted by Earl Baldwin, was bleak, with the young people sent off to institutions.

Jack Warner insisted on a more upbeat ending, and though Wellman didn't like it, I don't think the change was a mistake. It's still clear that Tommy, Eddie, and Sally are going to face significant challenges, but the Depression wouldn't last forever, and audiences of the day probably could have used a ray of hope along with the dose of very tough social drama.

While Darro and Phillips are fine as the boys, it's Dottie Coonan who steals the show with her unique screen persona. The way she scrunches up her nose and eyes when she gives an especially happy smile is imitated by multiple characters who come in contact with her, and it's believable when she charms one official rounding up train-hoppers enough to be let go. Wellman also wrote in a scene where she tap dances on the sidewalk trying to make some money. She's a delight, and it makes one wish she'd had a longer film career, though she seems to have been very happy with her decision to focus on her family.

The supporting cast also includes Rochelle Hudson, Sterling Holloway, Arthur Hohl, Robert Barrat, and Alan Hale Jr. The movie was filmed by Arthur L. Todd.

WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD is available on DVD in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 3. Extras include a commentary track by William Wellman Jr. and Frank Thompson.

WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD is a very well-done, tough pre-Code Depression drama. Recommended.


Blogger Liz L said...

A fantastic post as usual! You really can't go wrong with a Wellman/Stanwyck pre-code can you? Thank you so much for joining in the blogathon! And I am still jealous of your getting to meet William Wellman Jr!

5:29 PM  
Blogger Liz L said...

Aaahhh! Too many posts on my browser! NOT a Wellman/Stanwyck pre-code! This is actually one that I would love to see, especially after reading about it in Wellman's biography. I would also love to get a chance to see Dottie act! But yes, I am still jealous that you got to meet William Wellman Jr!

5:32 PM  
Blogger John/24Frames said...

Excellent review. One of my favorite Wellman films. For me, Wild Bill was at his best when he dealt with films having a social conscience like this one. I do disagree with you on the ending. I think the forced happy ending hurt the film. It goes against everything that came before. I do have to read the Wellman books. A great contribution!!!

5:21 AM  
Blogger Silver Screenings said...

This sounds like an intriguing film – thanks for the introduction!

I loved that you included Wm Wellman's practice of being home to have dinner with his family every night. What a wonderful gift to his children.

10:20 AM  
Blogger Summer Reeves said...

Again, the studios and their alternate endings! At least it was not a discredit to this film. Another film added to my "to watch list"! Great post!
-Summer Reeves | | Twitter: @kitschmeonce

10:57 AM  
Blogger  said...

Wellman's pre-Codes are always great, and this is one I haven't checked yet. I'm interested to see both the Depression-era theme and Dottie as an actress! Thanks for the tip, I'll look for this movie.
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

12:52 PM  
Blogger Maricatrin said...

I think the sequence where Tommy loses his leg is a great example of how a scene can be horrifying, without really showing too much. Good direction and editing often lends more impact than special effects can.

And I also like the length, for the same reasons you do;-) I was curious as to what you'd think of this one, because it is pretty gritty, but still deeply involving. The young actors really suited their roles and did very well in them. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

12:56 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you all so much for your comments! And especially thanks to Liz for hosting the blogathon! Liz, given how many contributions you have I'm amazed you have the time to go around leaving comments too, thank you for that!!

Very interested to get opinions on the ending! I'm kind of a softy anyway, but I tried to envision what it would feel like watching it in 1933 and I think I'd go out the door thoroughly depressed as it was originally designed... Maricatrin, I very much agree, less can be so much more.

Glad to know you wrote a post, Le, I'm working my way down the list of links at Now Voyaging trying to check out as many as I can, and I'll be sure to read yours.

Thanks to you all for stopping by and taking the time to comment!

Best wishes,

8:21 PM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

Wellman detested having to change the ending and that somersault was his thumbing his nose at having to shoot the scene. Although the original bleak ending would have been more artistically organic, after becoming so emotionally involved with the characters I think the audience needed some little dash of hope (at least I know that I needed it).

8:52 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Caftan Woman, what a great anecdote about the somersault!

The little dash of hope was appreciated by me...they were still going to have a tough time, keeping house who knows where in one case, missing a leg in another, etc.

Best wishes,

9:06 PM  
Blogger Judy said...

Like John, I'm no fan of the forced happy ending, which is so untrue to the reality, but the rest of the film is brilliant. Definitely one of Wellman's finest pre-Codes and a haunting picture of the youngsters roaming the country during the Depression. Enjoyed your piece as always, Laura.

1:53 AM  

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