Social realism unvarnished, unplugged, with America as a near gulag in gritty depression era society on the edge between starvation and death. Poverty, hypocrisy, opportunism are all explored in pre-code Hollywood where hand to mouth representations of living and ambiguous morals were the norm and the cult of the child had yet to mask childhood’s transparent absence of innocence and downright violence and cruelty. Is reality depressing? Or do these cultural fragments, remnants of middle class decency merely provide a structure of semantics that in themselves both liberate and enslave or did the Code merely repress an intensity with revolutionary possibilities?
…Representatives of the emerging New Deal — the good fairies of the depression-era mythos — come along toward the end (à la Grapes of Wrath), to make a quick speech and hand out some hope. It’s a time marked by sudden poverty striking all walks of life, but it’s before the Red Menace, the A Bomb, the Joe Breen-enforced Code. Communists are still just eccentric intellectuals on the Lower East Side, and “forgotten men” back from the Great War have found work as bootleggers or else starved with their ideals in the gutter. Pounding the pavement in search of nonexistent work, that’s just for the chumps. Hunger and cold erode the social morality of all but the most masochistic and self-righteous. Those smart enough to have not put their money in banks or stocks carry on, wary of the gold diggers and scroungers all around. …
The Code meant the cult of saintly children, marital fidelity, rigid class structure, preach morals and no kicks in the nuts from the American dream. The good girl got the rich guy without passing through the mobster and it was better to roll in the gutter than in minks and cash from crime. No crumbling social order.Film as propaganda and entertainment. The championship of kitsch and a cinematic narrative structure that would supplant naked honesty with variations on innocence as constructed by adults. So, the Code then became part of a larger cultural drama, a narrative on how we manufacture innocence. Innocence being that that cultural good we make and not something intrinsic to our birth and growth. “Stories” , experiential lies we tell about ourselves that are a few standard deviations removed from something we actually are.
…Wild Boys of the Road (1933) is one of the most absorbing, clear-eyed, unsentimental pieces of social realism that pre-dates Grapes of Wrath (1939). It’s the Over the Edge (1979) of the Depression, telling the tale of the “children of the forgotten men” — boys (and some well-concealed girls) who leave their starving families behind — so as not to be a burden — and ride the rails in packs, hurling rocks and eggs at the railroad bulls who try to stop them, beat them, and in one case rape them (a very intense pre-Code moment). Frankie Darro begins the film with a slogan-covered jalopy, supportive high school chums, and loving middle-class family. Believably and painfully he loses all that to the Depression, and eventually (and believably) becomes the rogue leader of some 100+ strong, wild-eyed children living and starving on the rails, in shanty towns and on the streets. He’s one little Piggy short of being Lord of the Flies, but buoyed by an innate sense of group support and the dim remnants of middle-class decency. And you care every second of the way because Darro is neither a simpering Freddie Bartholomew type, a blubbering Jackie Cooper type, nor a snickering Dead End Kids type. He’s just a smart kid trying to do the right thing, and looking after his own. …
…But Wild Boys shows kids who start out like any one of us — they’re smarter and maybe even braver than we would be in the same situation — and that just enhances the nightmare element. They’re hyper-alert to any chance, but there’s just no chances coming. … Read More:http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/64/64precodewellman.php
Henceforth, American innocence could never be killed off, it would simply arise from the dead in new and different forms as confirmation of American manifest destiny. Another shiny new day filled with nostalgic visions able to fend off the sordid threatening aspects of modernism that may wander into the dark recesses of the psyche. But, its apparent that innocence is a conscious decision not to know something, a procrastination, and a falsehood, since such decisions are rooted in presentiment,intuition, and understanding we already have. Innocence as the Code mandated meant using a pretense of ignorance, pretenses for others as for ourselves. The honest lie that becomes second nature to the point of not even being a choice.
Pre Code films like Wild Boys of the Road short circuit the manufacturing of disavowal. They cut to the chase by avoiding the phony melodrama of refusing to acknowledge darkness, of wearing rose colored glasses. Of being led to the guillotine with Vanity Fair and The Wall Street Journal under our arm. Cinematically, disavowal means a narrative that suppresses something unbearable, a kind of soft-core repression that splits the individual into knowing and unknowing in an antagonistic act of mutual conflict alternating between retention and banishment. What the Code meant was a construct of sophisticated yet infa
e forms of denial; sham convictions of individual purity, narcissism, as a replacement for a difficult engagement with an inner and outer world. I suppose there is still some wiggle room since disavowal is such a netherland, something vaguely acknowledged- kicking the can down the road, at least a country mile- and not hermetically repressed.
But in these early films our eyes were still allowed to be wide open. This was a serious situation, and for the time being the country was still largely run by adults. America was dead on its feet and the only way to keep democracy alive was a little “experiment” in socialism. The rabid conservatives of Catholicism and Capitalism would soon work hard to wipe the New Deal from the public consciousness, but we should remember that before the FDR-sanctioned work programs, the whole notion of America being able to “take care of its own” through some alchemical mix of patriotism and hysterical blindness was just a joke to be sneered at by anyone with half a brain who went to the movies and saw searing exposés of American hypocrisy like Wild Boys of the Road or Heroes for Sale. Watching Midnight Mary in today’s light, we can’t help but roll our eyes at a woman who would rather wear holes in her shoes looking for a “good honest job” than roll around in money and mink. Read More:http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/64/64precodewellman.php
…The psychotically cheerful face of the Code insured that everything would always be all right. No matter how many women had to die for their marital transgressions, at least we knew one thing would never die: America, God-fearing and “free.” But in movies like the ones on this invaluable set, we learn that America the Beautiful is actually far from indestructible. At times, the whole country’s been mere inches from complete collapse. And if it happened before it can happen again; in fact, if history has taught us anything, it’s that such repetitions are all but inevitable….Americans who prided themselves all their lives on earnings and work ethics needed to know it wasn’t their fault they were starving and unemployed. They needed to know America understood their suffering and was on its way to help, and Wellman gives them that with Wild Boys on the Road.
…Wellman’s films in this set aren’t much “fun” in that sense; at times they are even painful to watch. But you come away nourished from having witnessed something rare, and that would never come again — the truth!( ibid.)