Monday, June 28, 2010

Living history

To take off my dispassionate-film-blogger hat and put on my educator hat, Wild Boys of the Road (1933) should be required viewing in every high school class studying the Great Depression in America.
First of all, it was recording the events as they unfolded, without any knowledge of the outcome or assurance that everything would turn out all right. (I also marvel at WWII-era films that way--what faith we had as a people!) Second, it reflects, very powerfully and plausibly, exactly the effect this depression had on young people exactly the age of our high school students today. In other words--if you want students to sense exactly how it would feel for them to have lived through the Great Depression as people their own age--Wild Boys of the Road spells it out.

It is obviously a deeply felt film by director William Wellman, employing speed, trials and tribulations, rain, deep bonding and loyalty among young men--and in this case, one young woman is added to "the club." But it is rendered with a focus and an intensity that shows Wellman gathering his powers.

As with its predecessor, Heroes for Sale, Wild Boys begins by showing the fall from the middle class. These are not the undeserving poor--these are the children of workers and middle managers whom the System has failed. At first, it seems as though the downturn is something that families can weather with a little belt-tightening and a healthy dose of patience. But it becomes apparent that there are no jobs and that none are coming. Our hero, played by Frankie Darro like a small dark Cagney, sells off his beloved jalopy, symbol of carefree times--teenage freedom and emerging sexuality. It becomes evident that sacrifice will not be enough and the boys forge a plan to leave home and go on the bum to relieve their families of the burden of supporting them. So strong is the middle class ethos of optimism, that Darro's parting note to his parents is based on a blatant lie about work waiting for him out of town, a lie his parents are happy to accept for their own peace of mind.

There follows a section with little sugar coating. They ride in empty box cars, receiving regular beatings from railroad thugs. They meet a girl dressed as a boy, and although it is not stated as such, it is presumably her defense against rape. This is brought home by the rape of another girl by that all-purpose movie thug, Ward Bond, who perishes at the hands of an angry mob of kids seeking revenge. It feels so refreshing to reach back to before the decades of antiseptic lies about the world as found in films in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Something about that crisis in the early 30s gave them courage to speak--and to hear--the ugly truth about what was going on. There is feeling, yes, even sentiment, but not forced or falsified, shoehorned to make some kind of point or moral lesson.

The most famous moment in the film is that of the boy who, lacking the strength to pull his body out of harm's way, loses his foot under an oncoming train. It's still shocking, and technically impeccable-the effect work is seamless. But the strength of the sequence comes later, when the kids have browbeaten a local doctor into caring for the boy. An amputation takes place in the train yard, almost a precursor of the similar sequence in Gone With The Wind. But what makes Wild Boy's amputation sequence powerful is how Frankie Darro stays with his friend, comforting him, bucking him up, lying to him a little bit, completely giving himself to this other person for their sake. At that moment, you know it is that feeling of belonging to each other and mutual sacrifice that will ensure the nation's survival.

Wellman wanted a completely pessimistic ending, which the studio rejected. And this time, I believe the studio was right. First of all, it would be too much to endure 75 minutes of misery and end with an outlook of more misery. Second, it is truthful and natural that the good things in our lives are generally not delivered by systems and institutions, but by individuals stepping out of their predetermined roles, perhaps even bucking the system and giving others a chance, as the kindly FDR-like judge does at the end of this film. Moreover, it's been established that these children, damaged as they are, have the spirit and will to survive and thrive--and, as we now know with hindsight, defeat mankind's most dangerous enemies in the second World War. What a crucible those children passed through.

And Wild Boys has its own movie-movie satisfactions--the snatching of a cake as the boys run from the police, Frankie Darro's neat leap into a handy ashcan, disappearing completely. And most satisfying is the final film appearance of former chorus girl Dorothy Coonan. She had already retired from the screen when she married director William Wellman. But Wellman pressured into acting one more time, convincingly playing a tough and resourceful teenage girl, though she was already 30. Best of all, she cadges spare change on the street by dancing to the song "42nd Street" and performing exactly the same tap dance steps she performed in that film only a few months before. Put the sequences side by side--you'll see she remembered the routine step for step. Though unintended, that correspondence between films creates an irony that virtually encapsulates the Great Depression in itself. "Good times and bum times, I've seen them all and, my dear, I'm still here..."

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