Saturday, April 04, 2009


This is a seriously weird, probably one-of-a-kind movie. Imagine the Our Gang kids or the Bowery Boys making an antiwar movie, like All Quiet on the Western Front, but within the narrative framework of West Side Story (without the romance). Set in Hungary after the first World War, the film is essentially about a turf war between two gangs of boys: The Paul Street Boys, who look to be around 11 or 12 years old, and the Red Shirts, who all look at least 16. Though we get virtually no information about their family lives, I think, as in West Side Story, we're to assume that these kids have too much free time on their hands and not enough places to spend that free time. There is one last vacant plot of land in their neighborhood, an abandoned lumber yard, and the Paul Streeters spend their time defending the land from the marauding Red Shirters. Like The Jets in West Side Story, the Red Shirters remain individually anonymous except for their leader, Frankie Darro, who is dead serious and never cracks a smile. The Paul Street Boys are led by Jimmy Butler and Jackie Searl, but the central character of the film is sickly little George Breakston who is the only one of his gang who isn't an "officer," remaining always a private; he doesn't even have a military cap like everyone else does.

Darro (pictured above) sneaks into the lumber yard and steals the Paul Street flag, and the rest of the film follows the war that develops (both gangs portrayed rather heavy-handedly as "armies"), with Breakston trying constantly to prove his worth to Butler. At one point, Searl becomes a spy for the Red Shirts, but Breakston catches him and he is eventually welcomed back to the Paul Streeters. Breakston catches a cold and refuses to rest up, and by the end it has developed into a potentially fatal disease. When the final battle occurs, the sick little boy, who has finally gotten a soldier's cap of his own, leaves his bed to participate and tragedy strikes, and the finale has the feel of the last scene of West Side Story. The biggest problem here is that the movie never finds a consistent tone. It's mostly serious, with an occasional touch of humor, though it's all the weirder that the threat of real physical danger is rarely present. The disparity in ages between the two groups is also strange; maybe that's part of the anti-war allegorizing that's going on here, but for me it was a frustrating distraction from taking the movie as seriously as it wanted to be taken. The director, Frank Borzage, gets good performances out of all the boys, especially Breakston. Darro, one of the best and most underrated child actors of the 30's (see WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, now on DVD as part of the new Forbidden Hollywood boxed set), looks menacing but never gets a chance to really act. Though these kids are clearly standing in for adult soldiers in Borzage's war allegory, it's difficult to take the battle seriously, especially when, as online critic Goatdog points out, the final battle looks like a lot of fun, and obviously no one is in danger of real injury. A weird movie; if TCM ever airs this rarely-seen Columbia film again, catch it to believe it. [TCM]

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