Saturday, September 04, 2010


This may well be the archetypal example of a pre-Code social melodrama (from Warner Brothers, the studio that specialized in these films), complete with compelling performances, a fast pace, and some government propaganda spooned out at the end. Frankie Darro is a typical middle-class high-school student--a forerunner of Andy Hardy--but it's the Depression, and his father comes home one day out of a job. Darro pitches in by selling his car, but soon he and his buddy Edwin Phillips, whose family is also in bad straits, come to see themselves as burdens and run away, catching a ride hobo-style on a train. Along the way, they meet up with a girl (Dorothy Coonan) dressed as a boy who is on her way to live with an aunt in Chicago. She takes the boys with her, and the aunt is happy to see them, but her apartment is raided just after they arrive (gambling? prostitution?) and the trio wind up on the road again. As they head east, they become part of a large group of "wild" youth in similar circumstances. They’re not bad kids, and they try using the power of numbers to eke out a commune-like living, but the authorities, treating them as squatters, drive them out of a little shantytown they set up in Cleveland. One kid loses his leg to an oncoming train, and Darro gets unwittingly involved in a crime before all three end up in a courtroom where the nice judge treats them fairly and tells everyone that everything will be fine under Roosevelt’s NRA plan.

This William Wellman film is, despite its phony feel-good ending, a fairly bleak look at a real social problem of the time. Yes, the kids are all a bit too good to be true—they all get along, they all have good hearts, etc.—but the feel of the movie is gritty, and the weights these kids carry seem truly felt. In addition to the harrowing leg accident, there is a rape attempt and a brutal fire-hosing of the kids by the police. Darro (at left, above, with Phillips) gives a remarkable performance, a little on the Mickey Rooney side at first, but gaining in dramatic force as the film progresses. Darro, who was 16 at the time, has been good in everything I've seen him in, and it's a shame his relatively small size hurt his career, sticking him in juvenile and jockey roles into adulthood. His performance alone makes the movie worth seeing, but Phillips (who only made one more film) creates a character just as memorable. Grant Mitchell is Darro's dad, and he and Darro have a very well-acted scene when the boy tells him he's sold his beloved car. You may recognize Sterling Holloway and Sidney Miller among the boys, and Ward Bond plays the rapist. Though not filmed on location, much of it does have an authentic feel. This is part of the Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 3 boxed set, composed entirely of Wellman pictures, though it does crop up on TCM frequently. One of the best pre-Code movies I've seen. [DVD]

No comments: