William Wellman directed this hard look at homeless teens trying to survive while they look for work.
Eddie (Frankie Darro) tries to get Tommy (Edwin Phillips) into a high school dance free by dressing him as a girl. Thrown out, they siphon gas from another car. Tommy's mother has been depending on the Community Chest, and Eddie learns that his father (Grant Mitchell) has been laid off. Eddie sells his jalopy at the junkyard for $22 and gives his father the money. Eddie and Tommy leave to take financial pressure off their families, Eddie writing that he has a job in another town. They hop on a freight train, and Eddie mistakenly fights with Sally (Dorothy Coonan), who turns out to be a girl and did not take their sandwiches. She is going to her aunt in Chicago. They join a group of kids jumping on a train to Chicago. Railroad men sort them out, sending most without relatives in Chicago to the juvenile hall pen. Sally takes Eddie and Tommy with her as cousins, but her Aunt Carrie is soon arrested. The three join many on a train. Sally takes off her sweater to dry it and is molested while a hundred boys fight the railroad dicks and jump back on the moving train. Hearing her story, they beat up the man and throw him off the train. The kids jump off the train before it arrives; but Tommy gets his leg run over. Eddie finds a doctor who operates.
The boys form a "sewer pipe city" near Cleveland. Tommy wants to split up because he can't do things. Eddie goes pan handling with others and steals an artificial leg, but it doesn't fit. Police arrive to make the boys leave, and they throw rocks at the police. The police use fire hoses to drive away the boys. They go to a garbage dump on Long Island. Eddie tells Tommy and Sally he got a job operating an elevator, but he must have an alpaca coat. They go pan handling, and Sally dances. Eddie is offered $5 for delivering a robbery note at a movie theater and is arrested during a Cagney movie along with Sally and Tommy. They refuse to name their parents, and the judge says he wants to help them. Eddie explains what happened and the difficulty of their plight, asking for jail. The judge will help Eddie get the job and the others too, hoping they will earn their way home. In the final scene they have new jackets and go off together.
This extraordinary film reveals the dreadful poverty thousands of youths experienced during the Depression. Eddie's speech to the judge points out how many groups were helped, but that young people needed it the most. How such kids could get in trouble with the law is easy to see in such circumstances.