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Wild boys and girls

By STEVE VINEBERG  |  January 15, 2008

William Wellman’s WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (January 20 at 3 pm, with Two Seconds) is a traditional loss-of-innocence story about teenagers forced onto the road by poverty, and though it has a reputation for reflecting its time, in fact it’s governed by a sentimental naïveté. (Wellman’s Heroes for Sale, from the same period, is a tougher and more harrowing depiction of the horrors of the Depression.) The movie comes alive only briefly, during its famous freight-hopping sequence. At the other end of the spectrum are THE SIGN OF THE CROSS and KONGO (January 20 at 7 pm), two of the most lurid melodramas of the early ’30s. In the first, one of Cecil B. DeMille’s trademark Biblical epics, vice is represented by the Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton, lolling on his throne like a contented pussycat), his lusty wife, Poppæa (Claudette Colbert, first glimpsed in a bath of asses’ milk), and the decadent Roman aristocracy, always on the lookout for the latest sensual pleasures. Virtue is embodied in the clandestine, hunted community of Christians, who are eventually rounded up and fed to the lions. DeMille was an old-fashioned snake-oil drummer who sold virtue to his audiences only after luring them in with as much photogenic vice as he could pack into two hours, so you can’t complain that his phony sermons are dull. The Sign of the Cross, with its 1932 banalities stuffed into the mouths of tunic-clad Romans, is rather a delirious experience that contains one of the weirdest sequences in any pre-Code picture: a long-legged, eye-popping performer called Joyzelle executes the sinuous “dance of the naked moon” in an effort to melt the frigid resistance of the Christian heroine (Elissa Landi), but she can’t concentrate when she hears the hymn of the passing Christians en route to the arena dungeon.

Kongo is even crazier. Walter Huston, chewing the scenery, plays a white man who has staved off the bloodthirsty natives in Africa’s “juju circle” with a combination of magic tricks and compromises. He lives for a chance at extravagant revenge on the slave and ivory trader (C. Henry Gordon) who stole his wife and paralyzed him for life with a kick to the spine. So he pays to keep the trader’s daughter, Ann (Virginia Bruce), in a convent until she turns 18, then sends her to a Zanzibar brothel for a brutal deflowering before bringing her out to his settlement, where he feeds her on brandy and pimps her out to the locals. It’s hard to think of a weirder case of virtue struggling against vice. On the side of vice are Huston’s “Deadlegs” Flint, his band of thieves (among them Lupe Velez as a Portuguese bombshell named Tula), and the despicable trader; on the side of virtue are Ann and a doctor (Conrad Nagel) driven to madness by his addiction to something known as “beyang root.” These two bring out the essential goodness in each other, and once the doctor kicks the habit (swamp leeches suck him sober), he can turn his attention to helping Ann return to civilization.

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Related: Hardboiled hub, Reflections on a golden filmmaker, Moral minority, More more >
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