Wild Boys of the Road (Wellman, 1933)

In a mere 70 minutes, William A. Wellman brilliantly captures the maddening dilemma facing American families on the brink of economic collapse. Wild Boys of the Road takes place during the Great Depression, but its themes and motifs are just as pertinent during today’s financial crisis. In the opening moments, wise-cracking teens Eddie (Frankie Darro) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips) attempt to sneak into a dance, their problems amounting to impressing girls and cruising the downtown strip. As each boy watches their parents lose jobs, wrestle with bills, and await impending eviction, they decide to leave home in search of a job, hoping to take the pressure off their families.

Part social manifesto, part tragic coming of age story, the film follows the boys as they meet other children of their ilk in freight cars and shanty towns on the fringes of middle America. Amazingly, these resilient kids form a strong collective in the face of staggering economic and social odds, watching as the world dismisses them despite their growing numbers. Like Wellman’s later great films Battleground and Island in the Sky, Wild Boys of the Road shows a group of characters in extreme distress, creating a new family dynamic to fend off imminent death. But with Wild Boys the protagonists are children, making the story both heart-breaking and inevitably filled with hope.

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