Wild Boys of the Road

A hard-hitting movie from Warner Brothers came out in 1933 that depicts the ravages of the Great Depression on adolescents.  “Wild Boys of the Road,” directed by William Wellman, tells the story of an honest boy named Eddie (Frankie Darro) who must leave home and ride the rails to find work in the big city.  He sets off across America with his friend Tommy (Edwin Phillips), but finds only hardship, hunger and police harassment everywhere he goes.  The movie holds up well as a subversive indictment of the effects the “Great Depression” had on families and the nation’s youth.

From left, Rochelle Hudson, Frankie Darro and Edwin Phillips in "Wild Boys of the Road."

From left, Rochelle Hudson, Frankie Darro and Edwin Phillips in “Wild Boys of the Road.”

The movie begins with Frankie and Tommy being normal teenagers as they escort their dates to a dance. Lacking half of the admission fee, Tommy dresses up like a girl (girls get in free) and the two couples crash the event. Soon, the organizers discover the ruse and toss them out, but not before Frankie puts up a good fight.  Later, the 2 couples ride around in Frankie’s jalopy that seems like a honeymoon compared to their later difficulties.  When Frankie gets home, he finds out that his father lost his job, and money will be tight.  Although Frankie and his parents get along fine, Frankie soon realizes he’ll have to hit the road to find work.

Frankie and Tommy then begin their Odyssey as they hop a freight train and tuck into their packed lunch.  But when they can’t find their sandwiches, they disturb a sleeping fellow who turns out to be a girl named Grace (Rochelle Hudson).  Grace is a tough and determined tomboy, with enough charm and intelligence to make the trip a little easier for the boys for a while. However, the railroad police soon come after the train, emptying it of dozens of desperate young squatters.  Life on the road becomes squalid, bitter and very dangerous, especially for Tommy who suffers a serious injury in the rail yard.

Despite the hardship, the two boys and Grace never lose their dignity.  The roving band of youths even establish their own codes and arrange a primitive government, especially when they’re forced to live on a garbage dump in a hostile town.  The movie’s realism must have shocked viewers in 1933.  Warner Brothers’ penchant for making movies out of current events makes me believe this story could possibly be true for most part.  As for the acting, Frankie Darro is convincing as the energetic leader of the itinerants, but Rochelle Hudson steals every scene she’s in.   Edwin Phillips plays the unfortunate Tommy with an impressive level of restraint, but he only made three movies in his career.

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