Eddie Smith (Frankie Darro) and Tommy Gordon (Edwin Phillips) are a couple of young guys who are, like everybody else in 1933, feeling the pain of the Great Depression. At first, Eddie’s doing OK since his father has a good job, but Tommy’s mom has been out of work for so long that Tommy has to sneak into a school dance because he can’t afford to pay. After Tommy gets thrown out of the dance, he tells Eddie that he’s thinking of dropping out of school to look for a job of his own. Eddie tries to get Tommy a job working for his dad, only to find out his dad has also lost his job. Eventually, the guys decide to skip town and look for work elsewhere. They hop on a train, where they meet Sally (Dorothy Coogan), a runaway from Seattle headed to Chicago to live with her aunt. When they arrive in Chicago, they’re greeted by police turning people away because there aren’t enough jobs in Chicago for the people who already live there. But since Sally has a letter from her aunt, she’s allowed to stay and she tells the cops that Eddie and Tommy are also family.
Sally, Tommy, and Eddie go to see Sally’s aunt Carrie, who is thrilled to see them. She invites them in and gives them some cake, but the comfort is short-lived. Right as they get there, police raid Carrie’s brothel, so they hightail it back to the railroad. But riding the rails is aw brutal lifestyle. They’re constantly having to hide from police, girls get raped, and eventually, Tommy looses one of his legs when it’s run over by a train. When they get to Cleveland, they set up camp and continue to look for work, but Tommy gets pretty depressed because he feels like he’s useless with only one leg. When the campers are forced out of Cleveland, the three of them make their way to New York and things finally start to look up when Eddie gets a job as an elevator operator. The only catch is that he needs some new clothes, so they head out to do some panhandling. While they’re panhandling, some guys approach Eddie with a way for him to make a quick five dollars. All he had to do was go to a theater ticket booth and hand the worker a note and wait. He doesn’t realize he’s gotten involved in a robbery and is arrested. But when Eddie tells the judge about all they’ve been through, the judge takes pity on the kids and helps them instead of sending them to jail or back home.
Pre-code movies were more than just hookers and gangsters, they were also often brutally honest looks at society. Wild Boys of the Road is a perfect example of that kind of gritty realism that would go unseen again for decades after the pre-code era came to an end. You definitely can’t accuse William Wellman of trying to glorify riding the rails here. He is completely unrestrained in showing exactly how dangerous of a life it was. Even though the movie is going on 80 years old, there are parts of it you can still see playing out in today’s world, especially in this economy.