Tommy Gordon (Edwin Phillips) and Eddie Smith (Frankie Darro) are high school kids who have it pretty good. They go out on double dates with their best girls in Eddie's jalopy and the only thing they have to argue about is who gets the rumble seat.
But, Tommy has some bad news. He tells Eddie that he's going to drop out of school to look for work so he can help his family. Aw, that's too bad, Tommy, maybe my Dad can help out. Dad can't. Times are hard and Dad Smith has lost his job, too, and he can't help Tommy, he can't even help his own family. Seeing his father in distress and being a good boy, Eddie sells his flivver and gives Dad the $22 bucks he sold it for.
Having given the last of his worldly possessions to his family, and with them facing eviction, Eddie joins up with Tommy in a quest to find work to provide for their families. They jump a train and start riding the rails. They hook up with other boys, learning what they need to in order to avoid the "bulls" on the rail-line looking for any such vagrants using it for free transportation.
One of the "boys" turns out to be a girl—Sally (Dorothy Coonan)—one of the few who disguise themselves as boys to fit in and protect themselves from attack. Sally is on the way to Chicago, where she hopes she can move in with her aunt until she can find work. It's as good a plan as any and Tommy and Eddie run interference for Sally while they make a transition from train to train. Once in Chicago, they find their situation hasn't improved, as work is impossible to find and the local police are picking up vagrants, but Sally gets past it with a note from her aunt and claiming the boys are her cousins.
They make it to Aunt Carrie's (Minnie Gomball), but the stay is short-lived. Seems Aunt Carrie is running a brothel out of her place (Don'cha love pre-Code films?) and the police raid it that night—not a good thing for runaway and vagrants. They beat it out of a window and hook back up with the kids in the rail-yard.
Wellman stages one of the grittiest set-pieces he ever produced—the other kids watch helplessly as Tommy, unconscious, one leg splayed over the tracks has his foot cut off by a speeding train, crippling him. Only the help of a visiting doctor saves his life as he has to have his leg amputated. Things are tough on the road, and they're only made tougher by Tommy having to make his way with a crutch when speed is of the essence. But, the incidents near Columbus only steel the group of kids making them tougher, bitter, and, rather than running from authority, ready to take it on and fight it.
The group makes it to Cleveland, where they camp in what was called "Pipe-towns" during the Depression—make-shift shelters made from sewer conduits stacked in a supply yard. The kids call it "Sewer Pipe City" and for awhile it's a stable community in the unstable lives of the kids. It's short-lived, however, as authorities move in to take it down to prevent any lawlessness in town, turning water hoses on the group. The past incidences have hardened the young vagrants and they take on the police, beating them back and getting on another train, pelting the law with rocks and whatever else they can use as weapons.
Finally, they end up at the end of the line in New York, living in a municipal dump and things begin to look up, Tommy in line to get a job, if he can just scratch up enough cash to get a decent jacket. But, even that creates complications that get them mixed up with the law and an appearance before a local judge. This gives Eddie a chance to make a bitter speech on their treatment that has an eerie echo recalling the current issue of homelessness:
I knew all that stuff about you helping us was baloney. I'll tell you why we can't go home--because our folks are poor. They can't get jobs and there isn't enough to eat. What good will it do you to send us home to starve? 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 was made in 1933, and runs a tight 68 minutes, but its story of Society's way of dealing (or not dealing) with the issues of those souls who have fallen through the cracks of the economic infrastructure still resonates today.
Wild Boys of the Road was voted into the National Film Registry in 2013.