Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Girls of the Road (1940) - Social Commentary from Columbia Pictures

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.

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