In times like the past ten months, it’s easy to feel like things are worse than ever before. But once in a while, we get reminders of moments in history that were just as bad or even harder.
Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell’s documentary Riding the Rails (1997) is about a handful of former runaways during the Great Depression who spent the 1930s train hopping across the United States.
Many young people in the 1930s were advised — some by their own families — to go off on their own and see if they could have better luck amid the nationwide misery. As many as 250,000 kids, the vast majority only 15 to 20 years old, lived on the railroad with only each other for company and support.
Uys and Lovell’s documentary originally hit the 1997 festival circuit before airing publicly on PBS in January 1998. The feature received high acclaim and won some noteworthy awards, including Best Direction for a Documentary from the Directors Guild of America and a Best Documentary nomination at the Sundance Film Festival. And now for the first time ever, it’s premiering online for streaming.
Throughout Riding the Rails, we get many colorful, shocking and inspiring stories with the use of archival photos and footage, and interviews of the subjects shot in 1996. One man—Rene Champion—came from a family of French immigrants and ran off at age 16 to escape child abuse.
Another man—Clarence Lee—left home when he was 15 the day after his father told him he didn’t know how he was going to feed the whole family. One of the few female freight train hoppers, Peggy DeHart, ran away from her father’s farm after a disagreement.
These are only a few of the sad backstories of the young adults who struggled to get by as migrants from town to town. The storytellers also explain in detail how hard it was not only being a fulltime nomad as a minor, but also not being respected or taken seriously because train hopping is illegal and most didn’t want to associate with vagrants.
Legendary film director William Wellman’s popular movie Wild Boys of the Road (1933) was supposed to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of hopping trains, but instead had the opposite effect on young viewers.
Riding the Rails offers a good blend of real experience that neither glamorizes nor demeans, with the commentators coming across as humble and modest. Uys and Lovell set the mood with songs from folk icons like Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers to accompany sequences, along with live arrangements by commentator Bob “Guitar Whitey” Symmonds.
Riding the Rails is one of those refreshing documentaries that is fascinating and educational without being preachy or academic.
Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.