“Iconic” is a gassy word for a masterwork of unquestioned approval. But it also describes compositions that actually resemble icons in their form and function, “stiff” by inviolate standards embodied in, say, Howard Hawks characters moving fluidly in and out of the frame. Whenever I watch William A. Wellman’s 1933 talkie Wild Boys of the Road, these standards—themselves rigid and unhelpful to understanding—fall away. An entire canonical order based on naturalism withers.
To summon reality vivid enough for the 1930s—during which 250,000 minors left home in hopeless pursuit of the job that wasn’t—Wellman inserts whispering quietude between explosions, cesuras that seem to last aeons. The film’s gestating silences dominate the rather intrusive New Deal evangelism imposed by executive order from the studio. Amid Warner Bros.’ ballyhooing of a freshly-minted American president, they were unconsciously embracing the wrecking-ball approach to a failed capitalist system. That is, when talkies dream, FDR don’t rate. However, Marxist revolution finds its American icon in Wild Boys’ sixteen-year-old actor Frankie Darro, whose cap becomes a rude little halo, a diminutive lad goaded into class war by a chance encounter with a homeless man.
“You got an army, ain’t ya?” In the split second before Darro’s “Tommy” realizes the import of these words, the Great Depression flashes before his eyes, and ours. No conspicuous montage—just a fixed image of pain. Until suddenly a collective lurch transmutes job-seeking kids into a polity that knows the enemy’s various guises: railroad detectives, police, galled citizens nosing out scapegoats. Wellman’s crowd scenes are, in effect, tableaux congealing into lucent versions of the real thing. The miracle he performs is a painterly one: he abstracts and pares down in order to create realism.
Wellman has a way of organizing people into palpable units, expressing one big emotional truth, then detonating all that potential energy. In his assured directorial hands, Wild Boys of the Road sustains powerful rhythmic flux. And yet, other abstractions, the kind life throws at us willy-nilly, only make sense if we trust our instinctive hunches (David Lynch says typically brilliant, and typically cryptic, things on this subject).
I’m thinking of iconography that invites associations beyond familiar theories, which, in one way or another, try to give movies syntax and rely too heavily on literary ideas like “authorship.” Nobody can corner the market on semantic icons and run up the price. My favorite hot second in Wild Boys of the Road is when young Sidney Miller spits “Chazzer!” (“Pig!”) at a cop. Even the industrial majesty of Warner Bros. will never monopolize chutzpah. The studio does, however, vaunt its own version of socialism, whether consciously or not, in concrete cinematic terms: here, the crowd becomes dramaturgy, a conscious and ethical mass pushing itself into the foreground of working-class poetics. The crowd doesn’t just roar, it thinks. Miller’s volcanic cri de coeur erupts from the collective understanding that capitalism’s gendarmes are out to get us.
Wellman’s Heroes for Sale, hitting screens the same year as Wild Boys, 1933, further advances an endless catalogue of meaning for which no words yet exist. We’re left (fumblingly and woefully after the fact) to describe a rupture. Has the studio system gone stark raving bananas?! Once again, the film’s ostensible agenda is to promote Roosevelt’s economic plan; and, once again, a radical alternative rears its head.
Wellman’s aesthetic constitutes a Dramaturgy of the Crowd. His compositions couldn’t be simpler. I’m reminded of the “grape cluster” method used by anonymous Medieval artists, in which the heads of individual figures seem to emerge from a single shared body, a highly simplified and spiritual mode of constructing space that Arnold Hauser attributes to less bourgeoise societies.
If the mythos of FDR, the man who transformed capitalism, is just that, a story we Americans tell ourselves, then Heroes for Sale represents another kind of storytelling: one firmly rooted to the soiled experience of the period. Amid portrayals of a nation on the skids—thuggish cops, corrupt bankers, and bone-weary war vets (slogging through more rain and mud than they’d ever encountered on the battlefield)—one rather pointed reference to America’s New Deal drags itself from out of the grime. “It’s just common horse sense,” claims a small voice. Will national leadership ever find another spokesman as convincing as the great Richard Barthelmess, that half-whispered deadpan amplified by a fledgling technology, the Vitaphone? After enduring shrapnel to the spine, dependency on morphine, plus a prison stretch, his character Tom Holmes channels the country’s pain; and his catalog of personal miseries—including the sudden death of his young wife—qualifies him as the voice of wisdom when he explains, “It takes more than one sock in the jaw to lick 120 million people.” How did Barthelmess—owner of the flattest murmur in Talking Pictures, a far distance from the gilded oratory of Franklin Roosevelt, manage to sell this shiny chunk of New Deal propaganda?
How did he take the film’s almost-crass reduction of America’s economic cataclysm, that metaphorical sock on the jaw, and make it sound reasonable? Barthelmess was 37 when he made Heroes for Sale; an aging juvenile who less than a decade earlier had been one of Hollywood’s biggest box-office titans. But no matter how smoothly he seemed to have survived the transition, his would always be a screen presence more redolent of the just-passed Silent-era than the strange new world of synchronized sound. And yet, through a delivery rich with nuance for generous listeners and a glum piquancy for everyone else, deeply informed by an awareness of his own fading stardom, his slightly unsettling air of a man jousting with ghosts lends tremendous force to the New Deal line. It echoes and resolves itself in the viewer’s consciousness precisely because it is so eerily plainspoken, as if by some half-grinning somnambulist ordering a ham on rye. Through it we are in the presence of a living compound myth, a crisp monotone that brims with vacillating waves of hope and despair.
Tom is “The Dirty Thirties.” A symbolic figure looming bigger than government promises, towering over Capitalism itself, he’s reduced to just another soldier-cum-hobo by the film’s final reel, having relinquished a small fortune to feed thousands before inevitably going “on the bum.” If he emits wretchedness and self-abnegation, it’s because Tom was originally intended to be an overt stand-in for Jesus Christ—a not-so-gentle savior who attends I.W.W. meetings and participates in the Bonus March, even hurling a riotous brick at the police. These strident scenes, along with “heretical” references to the Nazarene, were ultimately dropped; and yet the explosive political messages remain.
More than anything, these key works in the filmography of William A. Wellman present their viewers with competing visions of freedom; a choice, if you will. One can best be described as a fanciful, yet highly addictive dream of personal comfort — the American Century's corrupted fantasy of escape from toil, tranquility, and a material luxury handed down from the then-dying principalities of Western Europe — on gaudy, if still wondrous, display within the vast corpus of Hollywood's Great Depression wish-list movies. The other is rarely acknowledged, let alone essayed, in American Cinema. There are, as always, reasons for this. It is elusive and ever-inspiring; too primal to be called revolutionary. It is a vision of existential freedom made flesh; being unmoored without being alienated; the idea of personal liberation, not as license to indulge, but as a passport to enter the unending, collective struggle to remake human society into a society fit for human beings.
In one of the boldest examples of this period in American film, the latter vision would manifest itself as a morality play populated by kings and queens of the Commonweal— a creature of the Tammany wilderness, an anarchist nurse, and a gaggle of feral street punks (Dead End Kids before there was a 'Dead End'). Released on June 24, 1933, Archie L. Mayo's The Mayor of Hell stood, not as a standard entry in Warner Bros.’ Social Consciousness ledger, but as an untamed rejoinder to cratering national grief.
Special thanks to R.J. Lambert