Watching 1939: Boy Slaves (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  Boy Slaves (1939)

Release date:  Feb. 2, 1939

Anne Shirley, Roger Daniel, James McCallion, Alan Baxter, Johnny Fitzgerald, Walter Ward, Charles Powers, Walter Tetley, Frank Malo, Paul White, Arthur Hohl, Charles Lane, Irving Bacon (uncredited), DeForest Covan (uncredited), Olin Howland (uncredited), Helen MacKellar (uncredited)

Studio:  RKO Radio Pictures

Director:  P.J. Wolfson

Jesse (Daniel) runs away from home to help earn more money for his family. He falls in with a gang of boys led by Tim (McCallion). Thinking he’s helping the group, Jesse is responsible for the group working in a turpentine work camp.

1939 Notes:
• The only film directed by P.J. Wolfson, who was also the associate producer of the film.
• First credited role of Roger Daniel.
• First feature film for James McCallion. He was in four films in 1939 and was not in another film until 1954.
• “Boy Slaves” was the only feature film for several of the boys including Walter Ward, Charles Power, Frank Malo,
• The only credited role for Johnny Fitzgerald, who was in uncredited roles from 1938 to 1940.
• Olin Howland was in 12 films released in 1939.
• Irving Bacon was in 37 films released in 1939.
• Anne Shirley was in three films released in 1939.
• Last film of Fred Kohler, who died of a heart attack in October 1938.

Other trivia: 
• Working titles were “Saints without Wings” and “The Pure in Mind.”

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Plan ahead and have a happy film to watch after “Boy Slaves.”

This is a gruesome and grim story about a group of homeless young boys. Some ran away due to bad family situations and others to earn money for their family, like Jesse, played by Roger Daniel.

The boys are taken advantage of by adults and find themselves in a work camp, where the living conditions keep them in debt rather than earning money.

Though the boys are young, they are in dangerous and adult situations. One loses an arm while working, another dies, and they also end up in a shoot out.

“Boy Slaves” is similar to other movies released in the mid and late-1930s made to expose conditions – such as prisons or children. I’m not well researched on this era, so I’m not sure if this is true to life or exaggerated.

One interesting note about “Boy Slaves” is that many of the young male actors were only in this film or two or three others. Actor James McCallion, who is the leader of the boys, was in a few films in 1939, but took a long film and TV hiatus until the mid-1950s when he returned to film and TV as an adult.

Of the younger players, Anne Shirley is the best-known actor but has a small role.

While a short film, it’s a sad and depressing tale that doesn’t have a great resolution. So be prepared with something lighthearted to follow-up with.

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page, follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet or e-mail at

2 thoughts on “Watching 1939: Boy Slaves (1939)

  1. I read this whole post thinking that this was a Musical Monday review (being off work for New Year’s day yesterday had me thinking it was Monday all day today) and was completely confused by the end as to how they swung that, considering how intense this sounds! I scrolled up afterwards and realized my mistake – oops! This sounds like a crazy film, though (even without the “boy slaves” breaking into song).


Comments are closed.