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.
KIM NEWMAN

First published on the BBC Films website.


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