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BOY SLAVES (RKO Radio, 1939), directed by P.J. Wolfson, from an original story by Albert Bein, ranks one of many social dramas produced during the depression era. With Anne Shirley heading the cast, the film rightfully belongs to newcomer, Roger Daniel, who, along with other unknown actors supporting him, remain unknowns. An intense melodrama coping with homeless teenagers searching for a better way of life is quite reminiscent to the more famous structure of WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (Warner Brothers, 1933) starring Frankie Darro, but coming six years later, BOY SLAVES shows great promise, but offers little or nothing more to what's been done before, yet somehow manages in holding its own.
Before the plot gets underway, there's a forward message that reads: "Since the beginning of civilization, man's love and defense of his children has been primary instinct. In America, fathers have fought, bled and died on the battlefield so that they might hand down to their children a heritage of freedom. Yet today, in some isolated community, hidden away from the law, there exist men who hold their love of money before humanity. Other men's young children labor for them from sun up to sun down. It is with these men this picture deals with hope that their mothers and fathers of America will search them out and expose them to the law." Set in a poor factory town where widow, Mrs. Thompson (Helen MacKeller), lives with her baby and two older sons, upon her return from her all night job, she finds that her eldest son, Harvey (Georgie Breakston), was fired from his, while Jesse (Roger Daniel), her second son, has left home to do his bid looking for work to help support the family. While on the road, Jesse encounters a gang of homeless boys headed by Jim Marley (James McCallin) who beat and rob him of his money. Regardless, Jesse decides to join them, hopping aboard a passing train after being chased off by the police. After getting arrested for panhandling and robbing a rich kid (Charles Peck), Jesse and Jim are arrested by the sheriff (Arthur Hohl) where they face a judge. Because Jesse unwittingly earlier revealed the whereabouts of the other boys, leading to their arrest, Jim labels him a "squealer." Sent over to a juvenile labor camp run by the "law abiding" Mr. Albee (Charles Lane), the boys are promised better living conditions, but Albee's Turpentine Company if far from being Father Flanagan's Boys Town as they see their heaven with a barbed wire fence. Finding themselves "Climbing trees like a monkey," "working hard like mules" and given food "unfit for pigs," they also must cope with Peter Graff (Alan Baxter), a sadistic guard, whose eyes on Annie (Anne Shirley), the camp's only female member, to be far from honorable.
No doubt that BOY SLAVES, if released by Warner Brothers, would have starred none other than The Dead End Kids, with Bobby Jordan playing Jesse, Billy Halop as Jim, and Bonita Granville as Annie. In fact, Warners did produce its own juvenile camp related theme titled HELL'S KITCHEN (1939) with The Dead End Kids, a remake of its own THE MAYOR OF HELL (1933) featuring Frankie Darro, so stories of this nature were common factor at the time. Being an expose on brutal conditions in juvenile camps, BOY SLAVES has its share of occasional passages of hard hitting drama, though there are portions of the story that leave some questions unanswered. Its most powerful scene occurs after Jesse's failed escape attempt to get help. Believing he betrayed the gang, Jesse finds himself confronted by Jim, holding a hot metal iron to brand on Jesse, who, in near crying conviction, tries to protect himself raising his bloody bruised hands acquired climbing the barbed wire fence.
Regardless of Anne Shirley being RKO's top juvenile star and her long range of movies dating back to the 1920s, her role is extremely limited. With long stretches involving others, BOY SLAVES makes one forget she's in the film at all. Roger Daniel, who captures the role of Jesse Thompson with conviction, gets plenty of camera close-up revealing facial expressions of sadness and sympathy to honor plenty of attention from critics and viewers. In spite of his other showcase performance in KING OF THE TURF (United Artists, 1939), opposite Adolphe Menjou, Daniel never achieved the stardom of a top teen idol in the personification of Mickey Rooney nor leading roles in any second feature production, but instead, drifted mostly to minor or unbilled roles before disappearing from the Hollywood scene altogether by 1946.
Other members of the cast worth noting include Peter White as Atlas, the harmonica playing black member of the gang; Johnny Fitzgerald ("Knuckles"); Walter Ward ("Miser"); Charlie Powers (Lollie); and the familiarity of Walter Tetley as "Pee-Wee'). With Charles Lane as the unsympathetic camp leader, his role would have been quite more effective and stronger with notable screen villain Charles Middleton enacting the same part. The judge giving his closing speech is played by Roy Gordon.
Seldom seen in recent years, this 72 minute "B" product has turned up on American Movie Classics prior to 1994, and sparingly on Turner Classic Movies. While BOY SLAVES is not for all tastes, it remains a time capsule reflecting the times of youth survivorship and hardships during the great depression. (***)
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