Boy Slaves (1939)


A young boy named Jesse (Roger Daniel) runs away from home to find a job and send money back to his mother, but along the way he falls in with a band of other runaways who are constantly avoiding the police. When the boys are arrested, they are sent to a turpentine factory where they soon realize they are prisoners without rights. Jesse tries to help everyone, including a girl house servant (Anne Shirley), escape — but not everyone will survive.

Hollywood produced a handful of films about young Depression-era runaways, but Boy Slaves may be the grittiest and most tragic of them all. The image of grown men shooting children in their backs as they run for safety is one you won’t find in movies today, but you’ll see it here. Children get injured and die (painfully) in this movie. The stakes aren’t sugar-coated. Another thing I most admire about the film is that the drama isn’t all from outside forces. The boys have their own internal conflict about whether or not to trust Jesse. There’s often concern that he’s not really on their side, that he’s a ‘fink’ who sold them all out to the turpentine company. That suspicion comes to a head when the boys threaten to brand Jesse with a hot poker if he fails on a covert mission.

The ensemble of young actors is impressively good. Roger Daniel, as Jesse, carries the film well. He’s upstaged a bit by James McCallion (Coogan’s Bluff, Kiss Me Deadly) as the boys’ defacto leader. McCallion displays a compelling blend of sinister and empathetic qualities. It’s easy to see how this performance would launch him into a long, busy career as a character actor in film and television. Anne Shirley (The Devil and Daniel Webster) is also a stand-out in her few scenes. But even the boys with less screen time and film credits are able to leave indelible marks.

After a grim and surprising third act, Boy Slaves makes a whiplash move in the opposite direction in a final scene that doesn’t fit sub-textually or even stylistically with the rest of the movie. The film is unavailable on hard formats and often regarded a ‘lost movie’, but if you can catch it on Turner Classic Movies or by some other means, Boy Slaves should keep you engrossed enough to forgive that final moment.

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