National Disgrace Exposed!
Depression Leads To Wild Boys Of The Road (1933)
A programmer from Warners, and not to be confused with a "B" picture, Wild Boys Of The Road saves hardest thrust of its message until a courtroom finale that spells out memo WB meant to send, a rare case where that company played politics right to the fade. Giftee was
Roosevelt's NRA, a poster
for which hangs behind the judge's bench. The administration was playing ball
with studios by cooling anti-trust action, thus mutual back-scratch. Wild Boys
starts off like Andy Hardy in extreme precode terms. Frankie Darro drives a
jalopy like Andy, but isn't above siphoning off someone else's gas to run it. Teens bury themselves in his rumble
seat to neck and maybe more; this isn't scrubbed youth of MGM invention. The
Depression breathes down Darro and it's not enough that he'll sell the
"bus." Dad's out of a job and rent is overdue, Frankie and pals
hitting the road to relieve parental burden. Would kids today dream of such
William Wellman directed Wild Boys Of The Road. He had come from relative privilege, though maybe writers hadn't. "Yard bulls" are scourge among hoboes, their bats and fedoras visible from distance teens need to jump off and take cover. Did railroads object to violent tactics ascribed to them here, or regard Wild Boys as fair warning to those who'd ride rails without paying? The shock moment, chillingly staged by Wellman, has one of the boys knocked cold on the tracks and losing a leg to an oncoming locomotive, hardtack truth as only precode could tell it. Documentarians go for this highlight like flies to honey. My seeing it in a Wellman special forty years ago caused swear-off to watch Wild Boys Of The Road, and it's only now that I've steeled courage for the 65-minute sit, made tolerable by HD stream via Warner Instant.
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Wild Boys Of The Road lost money and it needn't be wondered why. These homeless kids were less outlaw than pathetic, fighting back as last resort, but beaten all the same. A right formula lay ahead, and that was the Dead End Kids, social comment leavened by laughs and a wilder bunch that stood no guff from grown-ups. Wild Boys was well-made, but an unrelieved downer, an element Variety warned Warners about at outset. Players were outstanding, but no personalities emerged from the fray as individual Dead Enders like Leo Gorcey, Billy Halop, and Huntz Hall would. Troubles may have been foreseen: supervising Hal Wallis memo'ed Wellman that leg-off scene in the freight yard would cause women to give premature birth (not a joke ... this was legit concern over movies that got too explicit). He advised WW to tone things down, which the director presumably did, leaving us to wonder what sort of raw content was shot, then jettisoned.