We’re always told that teen culture was an invention of the 1950s and the post-war boon. To a certain extent this is true and yet watching something like Wild Boys is eye-opening. We open at the Sophomore Frolic. It suggests there were elements of this lifestyle generations before. Dances, girls, cars: they’re all still common hallmarks of youth.
But if this is the first realization, then the second reality is the extent of the depression. It’s also an ever-present reality in movies of this era, and here it’s no different. It affects all people no matter their station in life.
Wild Boys is at its best functioning in shorthand — scenes telling us the whole story in as little time as possible. Take for instance, when Eddie returns home. He reaches into the icebox pulls out a bottle of milk and a tin of pie. It’s a ritual many boys know. He’s getting himself a midnight snack. He carefully cuts off a sliver and then proceeds to leave the sliver and take the rest of the pie. This could be the end of it.
Instead, he sees his parents burning the midnight oil. They are somber, and he senses it immediately as they go over their finances. They do their best to downplay the moment, but it comes out. They’ve been hit hard. His father’s been laid off after years of faithful service, and it’s not easy for a man of his age to come by work.
If Eddie is introduced as your average, everyday youngster with the typical diversions, it’s in a quieter interlude like this where he shows a depth of character. He doesn’t completely comprehend the moment, but he’s still prepared to sacrifice and do his part, whatever that might be. We catch him going off to bed with his milk and the smaller piece of pie. What a lovely turn of significance where this incidental throwaway gag comes to represent the whole story moving forward.
Soon his buddy Tommy and he are saying goodbye to their pride and joy: a rickety jalopy. It’s a genuinely heartbreaking ordeal. He’s put his blood sweat and tears into its upkeep, and it’s just as easily sent off to the scrap heap for spare parts. This is just the beginning.
Their next move is even more drastic. They take to the road not wanting to be an undue burden on their parents. It’s a kind of noble act of fortitude blended with their boyish enthusiasm for adventure out in the great unknown. After all, these are only young lads. They’ve never been introduced to the full gamut of hardships and human experiences. The world is their oyster.
As they set off, Wellman makes it fully apparent he’s the king of the micro epics. There’s Heroes for Sale for one and then Wild Boys of The Road for another. It somehow manages to be this sprawling tale stuffed with so much in such a finite amount of time.
Like any good pair of peripatetic vagabonds, they form a band of freight hoppers. A lass named Sally joins their rowdy company with a sweet smile and a funny way of scrunching up her nose as she masquerades as one of the boys. It’s somehow fitting actress Dorothy Coonan would become William Wellman’s wife, and they would remain married until her death. The only other name I could tell you from the cast is Sterling Holloway.
What becomes evident is how their blistering journey is stripped of any Hollywood illusions. Take, for instance, the scene where Tommy is barely able to get out of the way of an incoming train. It’s emotionally devastating. However, it’s not merely a ploy to manipulate us. To say he lives is hardly a spoiler. The movie goes the extra mile and does the harder work of showing what he must do to press on in life.
While it is a different era, the conflict between the police and the populous is still a difficult one to reconcile. Frankly, it tears my heart apart to watch it. The lads function in a kind of ragtag pack mentality as they live as fugitives fleeing the onslaught of railroad dicks until they finally get it in their heads to retaliate and hold their own.
Although they break the law and squat on land, there’s never a sense that this is a pure portrait of total chaos and the youthful generation railing against law and order. It’s akin to The Grapes of Wrath where you see and witness what poverty looks like and how widespread it was, decimating so much of the economy and the livelihood of so many people.
In the end, out of sheer desperation, Eddie gets suckered into a deal that makes him an easy target of swift and sure justice. But this is not the final word. There’s a touch of moralizing at the end.
I feel inclined to grant it the ending because one must remember the times were different. Yes, the world had gone through the war to end all wars, the economy was in dire straights, but people still maintained a dogged hopefulness. Post-modern pessimism had yet to breed so rampantly.
Is it too naive to say, as a nation, we still trusted our leaders? Men like FDR could pull us out. Judges could be benevolent and kind. Greater still, we believed that America was the greatest land anywhere and that we could get out of the throes of the depression if we all did our part. If it’s not exactly preaching the fundamentals of capitalism, then it is buoyed by American idealism, and it’s beating in the hearts of all the youth in Wild Boys of The Road.
Ultimately, what lingers is a persistent reminder that this is not how life should be. Kids should be allowed to be kids. But sometimes life calls for them to grow up fast. Without dismissing the injustice, Wellman’s film does bring out the resiliency of his actors with uncompromising aplomb.
Frankie Darro’s not a household name, but he’s quite an apt avatar for an entire adolescent generation. After everything he’s gone through, he somersaults down the street, only to see his friend limping behind with his crutch. It’s the exuberance and the tragedy encapsulated in a single moment. The movie is a friendship between both these feelings, and it is better for it. The joy leaves his face and it is replaced by duty — duty to his friend — and a desire to help each other along the road ahead.