With reliable stalwarts Lloyd Noland and James Gleason at his back, America’s baby faced war hero Audie Murphy played his first major role in this Kurt Neumann film released through the Allied Artists banner. By the time that the 86 minute mark rolls around and the credits fade, you might think you’ve just watched a newer version of Boys Town with Audie in the Mickey role and Lloyd taking on Spencer’s duties.
Audie stars here as a 17 year old juvenile with a heavy chip on his shoulder that will come to the surface as the plot develops. The story is narrated by Nolan that begins with Audie finding himself in a bungled heist where he and a partner hold up a private gambling den. Audie barely makes it to the hotel’s front door before being captured and finding himself in a court of law where his attitude does nothing to endear himself to the judge on the bench.
Before he’s ushered off to a reformatory and possibly the pen when he turns eighteen, Lloyd Nolan steps in as the caretaker of a ranch run by the Variety Clubs of America. A place for wayward boys to earn their keep while getting an education and or trade to bring a normalcy to their lives and in some small way, contributing to society. Nolan’s assistant, James Gleason thinks Audie’s bad news and will find himself constantly at odds with the pint sized dynamo. He’s quick to point out concerning Audie, “The finest boy I ever wanted to murder.”
Playing the tough loner, Audie finds himself making more enemies than friends with the young men that work the ranch. Most notably Stanley Clements portraying one of Nolan’s leading examples of reform. Stanley even gives us a lazy cowboy song in Sons of the Pioneers style. I for one wasn’t aware of Clements singing talents. For Audie, the hazing begins which only adds to his standing as a social outcast. The only time Audie seems to find solace and appear as a likable young man is in the presence of Nolan’s wife played by Jane Wyatt of television’s long running Father Knows Best series.
Murphy’s his own worst enemy here despite the firm hand of Nolan and his willingness to help the young man through these turbulent times. When Nolan begins to dig into Audie’s past he just might unlock the tragedies that have set Audie on his downward spiral. With a twenty year sentence hanging over his head should he fail under Nolan’s tutelage, Audie seems to have resigned himself to a life of failure and crime.
While Lloyd Nolan may not be a member of the church as Tracy was in Boys Town and Audie doesn’t have the scene stealing chops of a young Mickey, the comparisons are more than obvious when watching this film having seen the Boys Town classic on numerous occasions. Though this may be a “B” feature it’s a great look at the young Murphy and one has to marvel at the fact that he’s easily portraying a seventeen year old while in real life, he’d lived on the edge of life and death day in, day out over the course of WW2. For a better look into Murphy’s life, grab a copy of this harrowing biography of his war years and subsequent career in Hollywood.
James Gleason as the ranch foreman and generally on guard caretaker is a crotchety old timer and if audiences at the time could picture what a Dead End Kid may look like in his senior years, Gleason just might fit the bill.
Bad Boys plays TCM on occasion and can also be found through the Warner Archive Collection which is how I located my own personal copy. Having long been a fan of Audie’s westerns growing up, this one had been on my radar for a quite a while. A nice window to his early days before finding a long career in the saddle.