William “Wild Bill” Wellman was always more renowned for his reportedly rough and tumble extra-cinematic resume (delinquent, pilot, stuntman) than for his mostly orthodox films — from his nearly 40-year career, only a handful of astute genre epics remain lodged in the cultural front-brain today: “Nothing Sacred” and “A Star Is Born” (both 1937), “Beau Geste” (1939), and “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943). They’re all beautifully judged, visually eloquent and delicately acted films (compare Fredric March in “A Star Is Born” to the rest of his mannered ’30s work, and you get a taste of Wellman’s touch), particularly “Ox-Bow,” wherein Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda are unnervingly in touch with the wages of frontier violence.
Still, Wellman worked long enough in the studio system to assure a certain homogeneity to most of his work, and so the payload of early Wellmans delivered in Warner/TCM’s new Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three have as much historical pre-Code transgressiveness to recommend them as they do Wellman’s nascent skill with performers and his knack for character depth. This is no small thing, and pre-Code talkies aren’t just prurient campfests: along with the healthy reminder that characters as well as viewers during the “Golden Age” still fucked, pissed, farted, did dope and dealt out prejudice like the rest of us, there’s the simple fact that sexual exploitation was a ubiquitous social state in the early century, and before the Production Code got enforced in 1934, movies could treat it frankly and without euphemisms.
All the same, Wellman’s first Vitaphone years are revealed here to have been peppered with moments of unanticipated grace and poetry, in the era when a studio workman would rap out four or more films in a given year. The most notorious feature, 1933’s “Heroes for Sale,” remains a scalding Job’s-tale litany of American degradation, from being wrecked on the fields of WWI to morphine junkiehood to getting screwed by the new capitalism to being a Depression hobo. But it’s also a stilted and abbreviated point-puncher, hardly abetted by neckless star Richard Barthelmess’ half-lidded stiffness.
Far better are “The Purchase Price” (1932), a eyebrow-rocketing fallen-woman hand-wringer with Barbara Stanwyck that hits on Hardy-esque wife-bartering, and “Frisco Jenny” (1932), a lively and convoluted melodrama in which the forgotten Ruth Chatterton (with Jeanette MacDonald’s eyes and a deep, vinegary voice) goes from cynical and pregnant San Francisco barmaid to earthquake survivor and full-on whore-mongeress, given to enduring her girls’ complaints about their furniture expenses (such as the “wear and tear!” on a divan), rolling her eyes at coppers and hiding a murder-weapon handgun by sinking it into a buttercream cake.
“Midnight Mary” (1933) covers much of the same territory but with Loretta Young and a bigger helping of tuxedoed gangsters, but “Wild Boys of the Road” (1933) is another matter, a mesmerizing portrait of the Depression landscape, following two uptempo high schoolers (Frankie Darro and Edwin Phillips) who, after living in “Animal House” hedonism before the stock market crash, decide to hit the road rather than leach off their starving parents, and endure (with a girl they pick up along the way, played by Rochelle Hudson) every travail of the desperate homeless, from police brutality, rape and murder to shantytown betrayal and institutional injustice. Is this the first official youth rebellion movie? (Interestingly, Hudson went on to play Natalie Wood’s mother in “Rebel Without a Cause.”)
With its Hooverville warfare and righteous socialism, the film never forgets that its tough-talking protagonists are still children in way over their heads, and Wellman connives amazingly touching moments out of his young cast, who look at each other with forlorn doubt, and whose eyes get colder as the film presses on. Darro, who was cast as snotnose punks deep into his 40s, is a revelation of shame-faced sympathy beneath the proto-Cagney demeanor of the day; just watch him when, at the outset of hard times, he sells his beloved jalopy of a car and buckles on the inside when the mechanic admits he’ll just sell her for scrap. Wellman sees this film not merely as a social issue drama but as an iconic trial — witness the magnificent vision of a hundred homeless boys standing on top of a moving train hurling rocks at the railyard dicks who tried to roust them.