Film Against Itself: William Wellman's 1933 Wild Boys of the Road goes to great pains, in its opening quarter, to establish that its titular hellions are in fact conventionally good kids at heart. They don't hit the road out of rebellion, but what they consider duty, a duty they know their parents won't allow them to fulfill. That is, they leave home looking for work that their folks, laid low by the Depression, can't get.
Of course, once the boys actually hit the road, their survival instincts and new sense of community—they find themselves part of an ever-growing, farther-wandering pack of sorts, one that includes a fair number of girls, a handful of refreshingly not-too-horribly-stereotyped African American kids, and so on—feed an inchoate sense of rebellion that cries for respite from injustice. And although the cops have mixed feelings about squelching the ad hoc dwelling place the kids have squatted in somewhere between Cleveland and New York, they do their duty anyway...and the wild boys find their strength in numbers. And they fight back, pelting their oppressors with rocks.
And the picture becomes what it seems to have been wanting to become the whole time: a full-blooded cry in praise of the anarchic spirit, a dead-serious, socially purposeful all-American answer film to Vigo's Zéro de conduite, from the same year. Wellman was nicknames "Wild Bill" largely because of his personal behavior, but here you can see that the handle also related to his creative temperament. The fluid camerawork and editing and above all the conviction of the actors on both sides give the riot scene an exhilarating directness that's still bracing and intoxicating today.
Of course it can't last. Pre-code or no, this is a Hollywood picture, and at some level it has got to sober up. And that's okay. And in fact, when, later in the film, at a hearing before the judge, when the de facto ringleader of the boys, Eddie Smith (Frankie Darro, in a really remarkable performance) breaks down and once again shows the vulnerability and sweetness that we saw at the picture's outset, it's a relief and a release; we're able to exhale. We expected this, and it's done in a way that serves an arguably legitimate emotional function.
It's what happens next that's kind of funny and sort of, even after all this time, at least mildly appalling. The judge who's been hearing the case (Robert Barrat) gets up from behind his desk, the better to address Eddie directly. As it happens, this compassionate lawgiver is about to not only hand Eddie his freedom but a job and a means to return to his home. As he rises, we see the bottom half of a poster announcing the NRA, which did not then connote the delightful National Rifle Association but rather, ta-da, the National Recovery Administration, just enacted and formed that very year by President Roosevelt. The camera tilts up to follow his movement, keeping him in the frame until he exits, stage left as it were...
...and then the camera continues its tilt until the entirety of the NRA poster is in the frame. Just in case you were wondering about the nature of the agency that has affected the miracle that's going to bring Eddie's life some semblance of normalcy again.
Don't get me wrong here. I'm not Amity Shlaes or any such wretched creature. I'm as pro-New Deal as any proud and proudly old-fashioned liberal out there. I think it's perfectly fine that First National and Warner Brothers wore its progressive politics on its sleeve, and I think it's hilarious that certain lunatics on the right are still noticing and complaining about it. (I won't do the piece the favor of linking to it, but if you want to have a good laugh at the expense of the mentally ill, go seek out actor Michael Moriarty's Big Hollywood piece about how Casablanca is commie propaganda.) But—with that one camera tilt, Wild Boys is transformed from a gangly, imperfect but thoroughly engaging work of cinematic are into a semi-antique PSA of sorts. This feel continues with a happy denouement that includes a completely incongruous, even by the standards of studio happy ending, cartwheel from one of the characters. Does it ruin the film, make it abject, as another shot, from a quarter-century and so much appalling history later, was famously condemned accused of doing?
Such is our question. And for an exercise, what is your favorite, or least-favorite, cinematic self-cancellation?