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'Riding the Rails' Presents Fascinating Look at Depression


During the Great Depression, an estimated 4 million Americans left home and boarded boxcars in a desperate search for work. Of that number, about 250,000 were teenagers, and filmmakers Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell had the inspired idea to solicit letters from them.

From among their 3,000 or so respondents, Uys and Lovell selected 10 vital, engaging individuals to tell their stories in their irresistible documentary, "Riding the Rails," which opens today at the Grande 4-Plex as the first in a series of four documentaries, each of which will play one week.

Although their subject seems sure-fire, Uys and Lovell have made an exemplary documentary, the kind of which has been raising the standards of the form in recent years. This means that the filmmakers and their colleagues have done the astonishingly comprehensive research that has become expected in the field.

Even those of us born during the Depression and familiar with hard-times images of the era all our lives will be amazed at how Uys and Lovell have mined archival sources to create a broad canvas of an America in dire straits from coast to coast. Images of bread lines, beggars, Hoovervilles and hobo jungles mingle with footage of young people actually riding the the rails, sometimes in the process of either fleeing much-despised railroad detectives or being arrested by them.

In short, they've brought alive the past in a way that places their 10 participants in as rich a context as possible. The filmmakers' assemblage of their people and materials has the charm and artistry of a fine old crazy quilt.

A couple of lines from some of those 3,000 letters, an old photo there, a visit to a rusty railroad train track, plus folk songs of the era on the soundtrack--these are the kinds of lovely bits and pieces that frame the interviews and the vintage footage. "Riding the Rails" is the splendid mosaic that represents documentary filmmaking at its most engaging.

Not everyone left home and headed for the nearest railroad track for the same reasons and in the same circumstances, although they almost all are from small towns or rural areas. Peggy De Hart, the one woman in the film, ran away from home at age 15 in 1938 with her best friend (whom she did not know was pregnant) after an argument with her father. John Fawcett, whose father was a prosperous ophthalmologist and who had a happy family life, took off in 1936 at age 16 for pure adventure.

For the others, the lure of adventure may have been there, but it was blended with a heavy dose of sheer necessity. And whereas Charley Bull, who took off in 1930 at age 19, says he wouldn't consider riding the rails now for $200 a day--"$500, you might talk to me"--Bob "Guitar Whitey" Symmonds incredibly is still riding the rails, during the summer months only, purely for the fun of it.

Clarence Lee, the one African American among the 10, recollects painfully that when he was 16 in 1929, his father felt forced to order him to leave home. "He told me, 'Go fend for yourself. I cannot afford to have you around any longer.' "

Lee points out what one would assume: that young blacks had a harder time on the road than their white counterparts. He observes that where a white teen on occasion might actually be invited to sit at a farmhouse dining room table and even allowed to sleep inside the house, a black teen automatically would be fed on the porch and might be permitted to sleep on a haystack in the barn.

Where Uys and Lovell really prove their mettle as first-rate documentarians is in the ever-so-gradually darkening tone of their film. As the Depression wore on and on and times got tougher and tougher--culminating in the cruel and arduous Dust Bowl emigration--the stories of the 10 witnesses get grimmer accordingly.

Yet these people have such an enduringly indomitable spirit that "Riding the Rails" never gets depressing. Instead, it is infinitely moving as we realize these individuals, now in their 70s and 80s, have been profoundly affected by what they experienced and survived. They have tales to tell of unspeakable hardship and danger, of encountering families facing near-starvation.

What "Riding the Rails" leaves us with is a much better idea of what the Great Depression meant for our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents--even if they didn't head for the boxcars themselves and even if they managed to avoid outright hunger. The next time an older relative strikes you as being unnecessarily frugal, you'll understand why.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film is suitable for all ages.


'Riding the Rails'

An Artistic License Films release. Writers-producers-directors Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell. Cinematographer Samuel Henriques. Editor Howard Sharp. Music Jimmie Rodgers, Doc Watson, Woody Guthrie, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Elizabeth Cotton, Jay Sherman-Godfrey and Jimmy Weinstein. Running time: 1 hour, 12 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Grande 4-Plex, 345 S. Figueroa St., downtown, (213) 617-0268.

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