Boy Slaves (1939)
Though made by RKO in 1939, this brisk, hard-edged B picture is in
the tradition of violently melodramatic social comment founded by Warner
Brothers in the early 1930s with I Am a Fugitive From a Chain
Gang and Wild Boys of the Road. A group of
young toughs, wannabe Cagneys all ('stand back, coppers, or you'll get
a brick moustache'), are picked up on minor offences and sentenced to
hard labour on a turpentine farm, where they become virtual peons, suffering
under the whip-cracking villain, bled dry of wages by the company store
('you'll be in debt til the cows come come, and in Turpentine the cows
don't come home') and fed on slop ('good wholesome food, full of calories'
'maybe if you took them out, it'd taste better'). Saintly sister Anne
Shirley steps in and brings the matter to the attention of an honest
judge, and all problems are solved in court, with the tyrant exhorted
to read 'the works of Abraham Lincoln' while doing his own stretch inside.
The talk is likably hard-boiled: Minion: 'There's mutiny in the camp,
the kids won't eat or work.' Villain: 'Their teeth fall out?' Minion:
'No'. Villain: 'Well, knock 'em out for 'em!' The youngsters, who all
have nicknames like 'Pee Wee' and 'Knuckles', are unfamiliar players,
trying hard not to come off like the Dead End Kids, and Shirley is an
improbably hot-looking social reformer. The obligatory montages of appalling
conditions and back-breaking work, culminating in a satisfying riot,
are more engaging than the lectures about social responsibility and
the essential decency of the American justice system.
First published on the BBC Films website.
All text on this page © Kim Newman