Boy Slaves (1939)

Boy Slaves is a double-edged message film. It wants to scare young boys straight and it wants to inform the public that some corporations may be more interested in money than the public’s well being.

Teenage hobos who have either been fired from or simply avoiding work in factories with loose labor laws find a new life on the rails. When they get arrested for roughing up a sissy boy they are sent to a turpentine farm to work off their debt to society. Behind locked gates and barbed wire the boys find that their lives indebted to the company store.

This is a rather nasty little B-film from RKO, but one never senses that the boys won’t some how escape their horrible sentence. When they finally do make a break for it and when the crooked owner of the turpentine farm gets his day in court he is charged with the crime of peonage – the act of making debtors pay off what they owe through involuntary servitude. Though the act of peonage was just as illegal in 1939 as it is in 2010, there are some rather timely connections between Boy Slaves and the economic problems of today.

Modern economic realities are so dire it makes me wonder if we don’t need more films like Boy Slaves to shock the American audiences into seeing the dead-end road they are headed down.

Just reading the opening foreword to Boy Slaves one can hear a ring of present day realities in its words:

“Since the beginning of civilization, man’s love and defense of his children has been a primary instinct. In America father’s have fought, bled, and died on the battlefield so that they might hand down to their children a heritage of freedom. Yet today, in some communities, hidden away from the law, exist men who hold their love of money before humanity. Other men’s young children labor for them from sunup to sundown. It is with these men that this picture deals, with a hope that mothers and fathers of America will search them out and expose them to the law.”

Seemingly, the film calls upon the mothers and fathers to do the dirty work of ridding America of crooked corporations exploiting America’s youth. The film itself plays more like  Bowery Boys adventure ennobling young boys and girls to fight back against oppression.

Today’s modern audience can find some striking similarities in the careless corporations or the slavery through endless credit. Perhaps the few evil men hidden away are less hidden and less few today, but our problems do not seem confined to protecting the youth. In this day and age it is not the children that the parents must look out for, but themselves.


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