Essentially a follow-up to 1933's gritty "Wild Boys of the Road," "Girls" addresses a problem that most Americans probably didn't know existed: female vagrants. The fine Ann Dvorak plays Kay Warren, a Governor's daughter (the State is never mentioned, though Earl Warren was elected California's Governor a couple of years later...) who takes it on herself to join some vagrant women in order to understand their plight. All while wearing a stylish new overcoat and flush with cash and treats for the girls she meets. Sort of a "Gentleman's Agreement" for "road girls."
The film was probably quite daring for its time, but now seems rather
tame, unlike "Wild Boys." Kay learns that you can't trust anybody on
the road (well, except for your best bud, played here by a somewhat
bewildered looking Helen Mack), that cops do have a compassionate side
but don't always abide by the strict letter of the law, and that bad
people will rip you off while you sleep. Not exactly news flashes, then
or now, but the film is interesting for showing how this plays out in
an almost exclusively female environment. Unfortunately, after a fairly
good start, the film bogs down when Kay and her new best friend have to
hide out in a "safe house" full of other vagrant women that plays like
your average summer camp. Some of the "road girls" act tough, but for
the most part the worst that anyone experiences is the sort of
rudeness, pettiness and petty thievery that probably occurs fairly
regularly at your rougher high schools.
The ending is actually quite hopeful, as it turns out that all the
girls really need is a shelter (though that word isn't used, it's
called a "castle" for some strange reason). The road girls just need a
place to collect their thoughts while they figure out what to do with
their lives. Which, incidentally, was what they were doing on their own
at the "safe house" without any government intervention, but let's
leave logic out of this. Educational, if a bit simplistic. Compare that
with the ending of "Wild Boys," in which the male vagrants just needed
help getting a job, no government programs required. Note that "Boys"
came out at the start of the FDR Administration, "Girls" after he had
been in office for two terms.
There are some titillating aspects - at one point there is a 1940
version of a mud-wrestling match between two girls who were (gasp)
gambling, and there are strong hints of attempted rape and an apparent
murder - but overall this is a film that the local police force and
Chamber of Commerce probably wouldn't get too upset about. Worth
watching to see Ms. Dvorak in her prime and to learn a little bit about
a fairly minor social issue and an approach to solving it that later
became popular in this and other contexts.