WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (William A. Wellman, 1933)

Hollywood took advantage of the absence of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.—the U.S. would recognize the Soviet Union the following year—by not bothering to credit the more substantial film that inspired its Wild Boys of the Road: Nikolai Ekk’s The Road to Life (Putyovka v Zhizn, 1931). Ekk’s film proceeds from a compelling basis: the countless orphans generated by the 1917 Revolution. Relocated, the Hollywood version replaced this with a sob story of the Great Depression. The original is marred by melodrama; this is even more so the case with the partial remake that Wild Bill Wellman directed much in the same vein as his earlier Public Enemy (1931), with its calculated mixture of sensationalism, corniness, vivid journalistic description, and liberal sentiment. However, no James Cagney in the new cast provides a riveting performance.
     Two small-town highschoolers, Eddie and Tommy, hop a train and head out for urban territories (first stop: Chicago), hoping to find jobs and not wanting to burden their unemployed and underemployed parents any further. They become a threesome when they meet Sally, an orphan, onboard the train. Thereafter, the police are a constant worry; Tommy loses his legs when a train crushes them.
     A happy ending to all this is not the only problem. Wellman juggles individual narrative and thematic social elements but fails to connect them in any meaningful way. The New York Times critic noted this problem upon the film’s original release, calling Wild Boys “pointless”—the most damning way of tagging this sort of film. Let us just say it is full of hope for F.D.R.’s first term.
     The best acting comes from Dorothy Coonan as Sally. Wellman, twenty years her senior, married Coonan. Their union lasted a lifetime.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s