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.
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.
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.
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.