Riding the Rails

When Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell decided to make a documentary about teenagers who rode the rails during the Great Depression, they placed an ad in "Modern Maturity", the magazine of the American Association of Retired People (AARP). To their astonishment, they received 3,000 moving and detailed replies. The film focuses on a group of nine men and one woman who reminisce about their experience as hobos. Their interviews are interspersed with archival footage from the 1930s and they add up to a revealing portrait of how young people coped with the ravages of unemployment.

"Riding the Rails" is not just about the hardships of riding in boxcars, panhandling or living in shanty-towns. It is also about the romance of the railroads. For many young people, including some from affluent families, freight trains were an escape from the routines and banality of small-town life. One interviewee says that "We thought it was the magic carpet . . . romance, the click of the rails." This fascination with trains persisted into the 1940s and 50s. Jack Kerouac often hopped on freight trains when he wasn't tooling across Route 66 in his Hudson. He was fascinated with hobo life and saw this as an expression of freedom and individuality. So do the interviewees in "Riding the Rail" who are about as endearing a group of 70 and 80 year olds that I have encountered in a film since Julia Reichert's 1983 documentary "Seeing Red." It is no coincidence that nearly all of the former hobos eventually became involved with radical or trade union politics.

For most of the interviewees, it was poverty that drove them to ride the rails. They often got on a train headed in the direction where they thought work was plentiful. They had the same sort of illusions as the Okies in Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath." They soon discovered that there were no jobs. When they got off a boxcar, they would be met at the outskirts of a town by a sheriff who'd tell them, "We don't have work for grown men with families. How do you expect us to find a job for you?" Instead, they would often survive in hobo camps on the outskirts of where they would eat every two or three days. They would make forays into town and panhandle for nickels and dimes. The sight of teen-aged beggars scandalized public opinion and was a primary factor in the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which put tens of thousands of impoverished adolescents to work. It is a sign of the times that the Clinton administration lacks the political will to push for these sorts of programs.

The documentary includes scenes from William Wellman's "Wild Boys of the Open Road," a 1933 feature that is being shown with "Riding the Rails" in New York City's Cinema Village. "Wild Boys of the Open Road" is a remarkable film. It depicts the hobo life of two teenage boys and one girl in shockingly unsentimental terms. One of the boys loses a leg in a rail yard accident and the girl is raped by a railroad bull (cop). This is not John Ford's "Grapes of Wrath", with its burnished, sentimental tableaus of life on the open road. It is a film that has more in common with Bunuel's "Los Olvidados" or Hector Babenco's "Pixote", films that depict the suffering of poor kids on the streets of Mexico and Brazil in the most unflinching manner. Perhaps the only explanation for the frankness of "Wild Boys of the Open Road" is that it was made before any of the New Deal major social programs had been implemented, including the CCC. Wellman must have been appalled by the misery of America's children and made a movie without illusions. It is too bad that so few films come out of Hollywood that have the same courage to depict the suffering of our own children today.