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Warner Brothers was never the sort of studio to shy away from exploring social ills or the harsher aspects of American life and Wild Boys of the Road (1933) is a perfect example of their commitment to this sort of picture during the early sound era. Set during the Depression, the film follows two middle-class boys who take to the road when economic hardships drastically alter their situations at home. Riding east on a freight train, they befriend other homeless youths along the way until railroad authorities force them off the train in Ohio where they create their own hobo camp.
Wild Boys of the Road was William Wellman's attempt to dramatize some disturbing developments in the social fabric of America while at the same time reflecting some of the optimism inherent in the New Deal politics of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Though normally very frugal with film budgets, Wellman went over his allotted production costs on this film due to his emotional involvement in the subject matter. Unfortunately, Wild Boys of the Road didn't do well commercially when released and some critics felt the happy ending was unrealistic. While that may be true in part, everything that comes before the fadeout is tough and uncompromising, particularly a scene where a boy loses his leg to an oncoming train. In fact, studio executive Hal Wallis requested changes to the train amputation sequence in a memo: "I am just looking at the stuff where the train passes over and cuts the kid's (Edwin Phillips) leg off. There is no doubt about it, it is effective but if we ever left this in, there would be more premature births in the theatre and more people dying than were killed in the World War. I hope...you will get it over more by suggestion."
Part of the reason Wellman succeeded in capturing such a naturalistic, documentary-like flavor is because of the real locations used and a cast of mostly unknown actors, Frankie Darro and Rochelle Hudson being the two exceptions. Dorothy Coonan, who plays Dottie, a tough, young girl who rides the rails, is a particular standout and had previously worked as a dancer in Busby Berkeley musicals such as Gold Diggers of 1933. Wellman became infatuated with Dorothy while she was making Wild Boys of the Road and soon after they married, making her Wellman's fourth and final wife.
Director: William A. Wellman
Producer: Robert Presnell Sr. (uncredited)
Screenplay: Daniel Ahern (story), Earl Baldwin
Cinematography: Arthur L. Todd
Editor: Thomas Pratt
Art Direction: Esdras Hartley
Music: Bernhard Kaun (uncredited)
Cast: Frankie Darro (Edward "Eddie" Smith), Edwin Phillips (Tommy Gordon), Rochelle Hudson (Grace), Dorothy Coonan (Sally), Sterling Holloway (Ollie), Arthur howl (Dr. Henry A. Heckel).
by Jeff Stafford