Thursday, July 03, 2014

Wild Boys of the Road

Kovan onnen poikia. US 1933. D: William A. Wellman. Story: Daniel Ahearn. SC: Earl Baldwin. DP: Arthur L. Todd. ED: Thomas Pratt. AD: Esdras Hartley. C: Frankie Darro (Eddie), Edwin Phillips (Tommy), Dorothy Coonan (Sally), Grant Mitchell (Mr. Smith), Rochelle Hudson (Grace), Sterling Holloway (Ollie), Ward Bond (Red), Minna Gombell (zia Carrie), Claire McDowell (Mrs. Smith), Ann Hovey (Lola), Charles Grapewin (Mr. Cadmust), Robert Barrat (giudice White). P: First National Pictures. 35 mm. 68'. From: Library of Congress per concessione di Park Circus
    Viewed with e-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato, 3 July 2014

Gina Telaroli (Il Cinema Ritrovato, 2014, catalogue and website): "In November 2011, when news broke of Occupy Wall Street's forced and violent removal from Zuccotti Park at the hands of the NYPD and the hoses they held, images of Wellman's 1933 film of unemployable youth living in boxcars and shantytowns and repeatedly being violently ejected from them immediately sprang to mind. But instead of making a statement against capitalism and the 99 percent, Wellman's wild boys and girl (his future wife Dorothy Coonan) are just aiming to survive while looking for jobs and a way to help the struggling families they left behind. They're caught in the very real world of the Great Depression, a world Wellman went to great lengths to capture accurately, as Bertrand Tavernier documents: "Wellman's social-problem films are among the genre's most radical and violent. Hal Wallis had several shots deleted from Wild Boys of the Road because he deemed them unbearable for the general public; to Wellman they expressed the realities of the Depression". The movie also got saddled with a required and very-much-tacked-on happy ending. Even with its imposed outlook, Wild Boys of the Road stands out amongst films of the era, as it creates a striking juxtaposition between the harsh reality of the time period and the innocence and joy of youth. Tommy and Sally light up a screen that keeps threatening to go dark. This is perfectly encapsulated in the scene where Eddie sells his beloved car in order to get money for his unemployed father. After giving his father the twenty-two American dollars he desperately haggled for, he steps outside and is confronted with the now empty and abandoned garage. He pauses for a moment, walks away from the garage, and begins to whistle a few bars of We're in the Money, made popular earlier that year by Gold Diggers of 1933 (the film that coincidentally introduced Wellman to Coonan). The tune slowly tapers off as reality sets in, and he suddenly, and fiercely, turns around and runs to shut the garage door. It's a somber scene, despite the burst of Busby Berkeley dreams, and beautifully brings to mind some of Manny Farber's many words on Wellman: "Of all these poet-builders Wellman is the most interesting, particularly with Hopper-type scenery. It is a matter of drawing store fronts, heavy bedroom boudoirs, the heisting of a lonely service station, with light furious strokes. Also, in mixing jolting vulgarity [...] with a space composition dance in which the scene seems to be constructed before your eyes". Gina Telaroli (Il Cinema Ritrovato, 2014, catalogue and website)

AA: Wild Boys of the Road was the film in which I really paid attention to William Wellman as a director for the first time when that movie was telecast in Finland exactly 40 years ago; it was never theatrically released in our country. The theme certainly was topical and inflammatory in our land, too, when it was made during the Great Depression. In 1974 I was impressed by the strong social commitment in the film which fitted into the Warner Bros. studio line (as did Gold Diggers of 1933, four melodies of which we keep hearing during Wild Boys of the Road), but also to Wellman's personal views: his sympathy for the outcasts fighting for their right to live. On the other hand, Wellman was a dedicated anti-Bolshevik de primo giorno, contemplating joining Merian C. Cooper in the attack against Bolsheviks in 1918 (Merian C. Cooper then became perhaps the cinema's first Gulag survivor!), and I guess the politics matched ideally in John Wayne's Batjac company where Wellman made some of the best films of his last decade as a film director.

There is nothing extraordinary in the prologue showing the teenagers' normal life, dating, partying, and petting with girls. But the account of the social downfall of families of the middle-class kids is startling, and not so different from what is happening today in many parts of the world. The symbol of degradation is the need to sell the kids' rundown jalopy to the junkyard for 22 dollars. "Like saying goodbye to somebody". I was thinking about Ritwik Ghatak's Indian car film Ajantrik screened here two days ago.

The boys realize they are a burden to their impoverished families and decide to hit the road. Their railroad adventure is the truly remarkable part of this film. Like in Beggars of Life (and in Other Men's Women) Wellman is in his element on the railroad. Their first night at the uncovered freight car. Meeting a fellow traveller, the he who is a she. Dorothy Coonan, the future Mrs. Wellman, is excellent as the orphan Sally. The train guards and the railroad patrols are terrifying, most horrifyingly so the brakeman Ward Bond who rapes a lonely girl in an empty car. He is lynched by the wild boys. The scenes in rainstorms, the fights, and the escapes are hard hitting. The tragic turning-point is when Tommy loses his balance at a railway station escape, and his leg is run over by an approaching train. He has to be amputated, and he must start to use a prosthetic leg. In Cleveland there is "a boy's republic", "Sewer Pipe City", but the abandoned children are evicted from the land via waterhoses. In New York the kids find opportunities for jobs, but when Eddie steals a few dollars to buy clothes to qualify for an elevator attendant, they are arrested, facing prison. (Here I was thinking about the Indian film of yesterday, Bimal Roy's Do bigha zameen, where the desperate boy steals to help save the family's two acres of land). But the judge is understanding and promises to help them, instead. They all get a new start in life.

Luis Buñuel accompanied Wild Boys of the Road in Los olvidados to this point but added a tragic comment in his epilogue. Wild Boys of the Road is still one of the strongest and earliest entries in a remarkable lineage which includes A Passport to Life (Putyovka v zhizhn, by Nikolai Ekk, inspired by the books of Makarenko), Sciuscià, Valahol Europábán / Somewhere in Europe, Los olvidados, Salaam Bombay, Pixote, and many others.

In this period William Wellman was churning out quickies at Warner Bros. at the pace of five films annually or more. But Wild Boys of the Road does not look like a quickie or a cheapie. There is an epic feeling of national tragedy. It is a journey from coast to coast, from sunny California to New York. The boys state that "there are thousands like us", and the film makes us feel that visually, almost physically.

A brilliant print from the Library of Congress.

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