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Film / Wild Boys of the Road

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Andy Hardy never had to worry about stuff like this.

"You say you've got to send us to jail to keep us off the streets. Well, that's a lie. You're sending us to jail because you don't want to see us. You want to forget us. But you can't do it because I'm not the only one. There's thousands just like me, and there's more hitting the road every day."

Wild Boys of the Road is a 1933 drama directed by William A. Wellman, about the plight of homeless teenagers during The Great Depression.

Eddie and Tommy are high school students and best friends in some small town in Flyover Country. Tommy shamefully admits to Eddie that he and his widowed mother are completely broke and subsisting on charity from the town's community chest. Eddie vows to help his buddy get work, but soon after this Eddie's own father loses his job. With their parents unable to feed them, Eddie and Tommy resolve to go out on the road as tramps and look for work.

Eddie and Tommy start riding the rails, where they meet Sally, a feisty girl who is in similar straits and is trying to get to Chicago to stay with her aunt. Unfortunately Sally's aunt gets arrested, leaving the kids again with nowhere to go. They embark on a harrowing ordeal in which they beg and scrounge and look for food while traveling from Chicago to Cleveland to New York, dodging railroad goons and fighting with police along the way.


  • Abhorrent Admirer: Harriet, the girl Tommy takes to the dance at the start, because no one else would go with her. He's ecstatic when her mother busts them for making out in Eddie's car.
    Harriet: My mom won't let me have any fun!
    Tommy: She's doing me a mighty big favour.
  • An Aesop: Eddie's "Reason You Suck" Speech to the judge details the movie's message that society tries to take the homeless out of sight and out of mind rather than actually doing anything about the problem. Also the very harrowing scene where the police - who admit they think this is extreme - hose down the teens to get them to leave the junkyard also makes this point.
  • The Alleged Car: "Leapin' Lena", Eddie's old jalopy that literally shakes when you start the engine. Things start going downhill for Eddie when he sells his car for $22 to help his desperate parents.
  • An Arm and a Leg: Tommy jumps off the train at a station, but his momentum sends him crashing into a signpost. A stunned Tommy then loses a leg when a train runs right over it.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Eddie develops plenty for Tommy as the movie goes on.
  • The Big Rotten Apple: Eddie, Tommy, and Sally wind up in New York, living in a garbage dump, going hungry. Eddie is optimistic but Tommy and Sally hate it, wishing they'd stayed in the country where at least it was easier to find food.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: Tommy (blonde), Eddie (brunet), Sally (redhead).
  • Cerebus Retcon: A gag when Eddie comes home from the dance has him cutting a slice of apple pie...and putting the tiny slice back in the fridge while he prepares to eat the big part. Then he finds out his father has lost his job, and he goes back to the kitchen to take the smaller slice instead.
  • Children Are Innocent: A dark variant. The children all have a very idealistic attitude towards getting better lives, and they are quick to discover that it's very far from the truth.
  • Coming of Age Story: A particularly dark one, as two fresh-faced teens suffer terribly during the Depression.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Tommy is hobbling on a homemade crutch after losing a leg. Eddie, running from the cops, hides in a random alley. That alley is right next to a store selling artificial limbs.
  • Decomposite Character: Sally is the one who gets raped in the book. In the film this happens to another character called Grace.
  • Disguised in Drag: Before everything goes to hell, Tommy is dressing up in drag to gain entrance to a school dance.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: The boys are said not to help Tommy up after he falls over, for this reason.
  • Fan Disservice: Grace changing is not played for titillation, as the shot of her in her underwear has the brakeman approaching her - leaving viewers in little doubt as to what happens next.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: The teens who travel together all become very close and a tight knit unit.
  • Happy Ending: Forced on Wellman by Executive Meddling. In the original script, it's a Downer Ending where the judge sends the kids to jail. In the finished film, the judge relents and promises to get the kids work and places to stay.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: "Railroad dicks."
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Eddie and Tommy through and through.
  • Hobos: Lacking any better options, Eddie and Tommy start riding the rails, looking for work. It is a bad, bad life, nowhere near as romantic as it is often portrayed in other works. Hunger and fear plague the children as they travel across America. One child is sickened on the train by eating rotten food. Another is raped.
  • Hope Spot: A couple. Aunt Carrie might be a whore, but at least she's offering the kids food to eat and a place to stay—until she's arrested minutes after they arrive. Then things finally start looking up in New York when Eddie gets a job as an elevator operator—but his efforts to raise $3 to get suitable clothes end up with him and his friends getting arrested.
  • Impairment Shot: A railroad mook has blurred vision after a kid throws an egg in his face.
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Tommy after losing his leg is still able to get up by himself after falling down.
  • Jobless Parent Drama: Why Eddie, Tommy, and all the other unfortunate teenagers are riding the rails: their parents are out of work and can't provide for them.
  • Kangaroo Court: A very short and sweet version of one when the kids, after finding out that the brakeman raped Grace, throw him off a moving train to his death.
  • Mooks: The railroad thugs sent to chase the kids off the trains. After the kids realize they outnumber the railroad mooks by a large margin, they attack them, and chase them off.
  • Papa Wolf: The boys strike back at the brakesman after he rapes Grace.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: The cops in Cleveland, who are Just Following Orders when they turn the fire hoses on the children's tramp village. One mentions that he has a couple of kids of his own at home.
  • Random Events Plot: The movie is very episodic, showing what happens when each of the friends moves to a new location in search of work.
  • Rape as Drama: Grace, one of the girls on the train, gets left behind when the others are battling the railroad mooks. She is raped by a brakeman.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The judge, who by all rights should send the kids to jail for robbery, truancy, and resisting arrest. Instead he dismisses the charges and promises to get them all work.
  • Road Trip Plot: A harrowing journey from middle America to Chicago and thence to Cleveland and New York, scrounging for food and trying to avoid arrest and/or assault.
  • The Runaway: Eddie, Tommy, Sally, and the other kids on the trains have run away from home because their parents can't feed them.
  • Samus Is a Girl: Eddie suspects another hobo of stealing their sandwiches. Eddie confronts the other hobo and gets a bloody nose before finding out the hobo is a girl, Sally.
  • Shout-Out: The movie playing in the theater when Eddie is trying to avoid arrest is Footlight Parade.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: In the original story Sally is the character who is raped on the train, and she hangs herself. In the movie the rape happens to another character, Grace, and Sally ends the movie alive.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Sally dresses as a boy and continues to wear boys' clothes throughout the film.
  • Time Skip: There's a significant skip from the battle with railroad mooks to a scene where the kids have found a home in a "sewer pipe city" where teens have set up a camp in a dump for surplus sewer pipes. Then another time skip after they're chased out of there, taking the kids to New York.
  • Title Drop: "Police Alarmed At Increase In Wild Boys Of The Road" is a newspaper headline.
  • True Companions: Eddie, Tommy, and Sally, who stick with each other through thick and thin all the way from Chicago to New York.
  • Two Guys and a Girl: Eddie, Tommy and Sally.
  • Uncle Tomfoolery: This otherwise progressive, almost leftist film manages to squeeze in some racist humor when the only two black kids on the train liberate some watermelons.