Riding the Rails

Female Hoboes in American Cinema

by Mary Mallory

Hoboes were America’s first freelance workers, rambling across the country in search of employment. Industrialization in the northern United States after the Civil War developed the need for seasonal and temporary workers, creating a shadow economy of casual or itinerant labor. Never quite able to gain a foothold, a restless “army of the unemployed” soon took to the road looking for new jobs. This transient population joined the push westward into the ever-expanding agricultural opportunities of the American prairie. Booming railroad construction opened new territories to farming, offering easy transportation and housing to those seasonal field hands migrating between harvesting jobs as they endured hardship, despair, and loneliness. During grueling economic times after the turn of the twentieth century, women joined the parade of vagabonds looking for work, disguising themselves in baggy male attire as a form of protection. Courageous and daring, these Sheboes confronted danger with only their wits and imagination, inspiring characters found in both silent and sound films.

(First National, 1926)
In this adaptation of Tiffany Wells’s serialized novel Shebo, Anna Q. Nilsson plays spirited society girl Barbara Brown, flitting from party to party as one of the most popular girls in town. Her wastrel father squanders the family fortune, leaving them destitute and turning his daughter into “Miss Nobody.” Determined to escape her impoverished fate, she masquerades as a young man, hitting the road in search of work. Along the way she joins a ragtag band of hoboes hopping trains from town to town. At first they seem harmless, engaging in slapstick fisticuffs, but then some begin menacing her. Bravo, the leader of the makeshift gang, played by Walter Pidgeon, steps in and saves her and the two split off on a series of comic adventures of their own.

(Universal, 1927)
Based on John B. Hymer and LeRoy Clemens’s long-running play, Alias the Deacon opens on a motley group of hoboes occupying a refrigerator car. Phyllis, a young girl played by June Marlowe, lurks in the shadows, dressed like a boy after desperate circumstances forced her to run away from home. Realizing a girl is in their midst, the boorish group starts a game with her as top prize. Jean Hersholt, a lovable card sharp masquerading as a pious church deacon, wins her with his card tricks but the tramps refuse to turn her over. Boxer John Adams (Ralph Graves) frees her from their clutches before the pair hop off the train in a small town and into a new life.

(Paramount, 1928)
Directed by William Wellman, Louise Brooks plays a spirited runaway in her standout American film adapted from Jim Tully’s hard-hitting novel of the migratory life at the turn of the twentieth century. Fleeing the law by impersonating a young man after murdering her violent stepfather, the girl goes on the run with an honorable drifter played by Richard Arlen. They come up against a sinister element of the hobo underworld, seek shelter in a freight car, scrounge for food at a makeshift camp occupied by an array of outcasts, and fend off a potential gang rape of the girl, all part of the dangerous, grim existence endured by those riding the rails.

(Warner Bros., 1933)
Wellman also directed this powerful look at desperate youth trying to persevere during the depths of the Great Depression. Teenagers Eddie (Frankie Darro) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips) strike out on their own, jumping trains or pounding the pavement, traveling the country in search of employment and discovering how dangerous and difficult the transient life really is. They join forces with a boyishly clad Sally (Dorothy Coonan), camping out in the makeshift Sewer City and enduring miserable living conditions as they fend off the authorities and other surly youth in a never-ending battle to survive.

(Universal, 1934)
Alias the Deacon updated to the Great Depression, Half a Sinner features Sally Blane’s troubled Phyllis disguised as a boy who meets up with Joel McCrea’s tough John Adams in a freight car. The shrewd John befriends the innocent Phyllis, taking her under his wing and instructing her on the unwritten rules of surviving the hobo life. Fellow traveler Berton Churchill is the wily card sharp impersonating a respected church elder who prevents a tramp from attacking Phyllis.

(Paramount, 1942)
Produced long after the silent era had ended Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels takes place in the wake of the Great Depression, whose troubling times were left behind only the year before. Tired of Hollywood superficiality, comedy director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) impersonates a hobo to gather material for a serious drama. He’s joined on his quest by a failed actress (Veronica Lake) who dresses like a boy to blend in. Together they hop a train and face the hunger, fear, and danger that is the everyday life of hoboes. Before long he insists that she stay behind for safety and he continues on alone. A potent blend of satire, uproarious comedy, and pathos, the film is an American classic. Trains magazine ranked it twenty-fifth on its list of 100 Greatest Train Movies.