Wild Boys of the Road (1932): Wellman’s Depression-Era Tale of Teen Hobos

William Wellman directed Wild Boys of the Road, a pre-Code Depression-era American film, starring Frankie Darro, Edwin Phillips, Rochelle Hudson, and Grant Mitchell.

The screenplay by Earl Baldwin, based on Daniel Ahern’s story, “Desperate Youth,” tells the story of teens forced into becoming hobos.

Tommy Gordon (Edwin Phillips) tells his friend Eddie Smith (Frankie Darro) that he is going to drop out of high school to look for work to support his struggling family. Eddie speaks to his father (Grant Mitchell) about getting him a job, but the father himself just lost his job. Eddie sells his car and gives the money to his father, but the bills keep piling up, and the family is threatened with eviction.

Eddie and Tommy leave home to ease the burden on their families.  They board a freight train, where they meet the teenager Sally (Dorothy Coonan), who is hoping to stay with her aunt in Chicago.

In Chicago, the police inform them and other hobos about the unemployment crisis.  Most of the transients are sent to detention, but Sally’s letter from her aunt helps. She claims her companions cousins, and the policeman, though skeptical, lets them go.

Sally’s Aunt Carrie (Minna Gombell) welcomes them into her apartment, which is actually a brothel. However, the place is raided by the police, and the trio escape and continue their rail journey east.

One girl (Ann Hovey), caught alone in a railcar, is raped by the train brakeman (Ward Bond). When the others find out, they hit the assailant, who, by accident, falls out of the train to his death.

When the train approaches the city, everyone jumps off. Tommy hits his head on a switch and falls across the track in front of an oncoming train. He crawls desperately towards safety, but his foot gets mangled and his leg has to be amputated.

They live in “Sewer Pipe City” near Cleveland, until the city authorities decide to shut it down to discourage vagrancy, due in part to Eddie’s theft of a prosthetic leg for Tommy.

The three end up living in the New York Municipal Dump. Eddie lands a job, but needs to find $3 to pay for a coat which the job requires. They panhandle to raise the money. When two men offer Eddie $5 to deliver a note to a movie theater cashier across the street, he jumps at the chance. The note turns out to be demand for money. Eddie is arrested, and the other two are taken in when they protest.

The judge (Robert Barrat) cannot get any information out of them, but Eddie’s embittered speech moves him. He dismisses the charges and promises to get Eddie’s job back and to help the other two. He also assures them that their parents will be back to work soon.

Cast

Frankie Darro as Eddie Smith
Edwin Phillips as Tommy Gordon
Rochelle Hudson as Grace
Dorothy Coonan as Sally
Sterling Holloway as Ollie
Arthur Hohl as Dr. Heckel
Ann Hovey as Lola
Minna Gombell as Aunt Carrie
Grant Mitchell as Mr. Smith
Claire McDowell as Mrs. Smith
Robert Barrat as Judge White

Cultural Status

On December 2013, the film was selected for the 2013 National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Note: I am grateful to TCM for showing the film on December 4, 2019.

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