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August 22, 2017

Beggars of Life

beggars of life poster 1.jpg

William A. Wellman - 1928
Kino Classics BD Region A

Throughout most of Beggars of Life, Louise Brooks is seen wear a man's dark suit with a white shirt, often with a flat cap. Brooks' male disguise may not be very convincing, especially for contemporary audiences, but it works as an unintended fashion forward statement. It's when we see Brooks near the end of the film in a simple white dress and bonnet that she looks awkward. With Louise Brooks more popular now than she was in her lifetime, and honored as much for her independence as for some of her surviving films, dressing in masculine garb may well be more fitting the actress remembered for playing women who usually refused to be domesticated.

Brooks plays a young women who has just murdered the man who adopted her, shooting him in the head rather than submit to his sexual advances. Richard Arlen is the hobo who wanders to Brooks' farm home, looking for a meal possibly in exchange for some work, stumbling across the dead man slumped by the breakfast table, and a scared young woman ready to run away from this home. Arlen reluctantly takes Brooks under his wing, and the two hop a train, eventually stopping at a hobo camp that is presided over by Wallace Beery. Brooks is on the lam for murder, with wanted signs and a one-thousand dollar reward offered, but being the one woman among a gang of hoboes with nothing to lose puts her in a perilous position.

The film was inspired by the anecdotal book of the same name by Jim Tully, and it's almost as if several people involved were destined to be part of the production. Published in 1924, Jim Tully was a young former hobo who eventually became a full-time writer. The book was given a narrative structure when made into a play by Maxwell Anderson. The play was seen by Charles Chaplin, a former employer of Tully's, one time accompanied by Louise Brooks. Playing the role of the young hobo on stage was James Cagney, yet to make his screen debut, with stardom under the guidance of William Wellman. Wallace Beery also had his own history as an itinerant performer. Even without sound, Beery is virtually the same burly oaf of the sound era whose big talk masks a generous heart.

Beggars of Life was a more personal project for William Wellman after the success of Wings. Those familiar with Wellman's other films will spot an obvious connection with Wild Boys of the Road, made five years later, with teenage hobos, and another girl, played by Dorothy Coonan (the future Mrs. Wellman), dressed as a guy, trying to survive life on the road. Several of Wellman's best films, including Heroes for Sale and Good-Bye, My Lady, center on people living on the margins of society.

The sound hybrid version with Wallace Beery singing about the joys of alcohol in the time of prohibition is consideredlost. While there is plenty of dialogue shown in titles, Wellman makes the unusual choice of having a purely visual flashback scene take place while superimposed over a close-up of Brooks. Part of the flashback is suggested with the hands of Brooks laying breakfast on the table, the hands of the farmer tearing Brooks' dress at the shoulder, Brooks legs moving back until she is against the wall, where behind her hangs a loaded rifle. One of the other great images is of a jaunty Beery driving a "flivver", feet on the dashboard, facing the camera.

One of the credited supporting roles is played by the African-American actor Edgar Washington. There is very little information on Washington, a former Negro League baseball player. A credited actor in the silent era, Washington played uncredited bit parts for most of his career after Beggars of Life. His role as one of the hoboes may be viewed as having some of the stereotyping of the time the film was made, but is relatively progressive for a Hollywood production made when black actors were usually inserted into films to provide comic relief.

The chamber group, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, performs the soundtrack, based on the 1928 cue sheets. There are also two commentary tracks, from the director's son, William Wellman, Jr., and Thomas Gladysz, who has a book on the making of Beggars of Life. Additionally, there is a booklet with notes by Nick Pinkerton. Between the three contributors, one gets a good picture of the effort required to make Beggars of Life amidst the sometimes fractious relationships between the various collaborators.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 22, 2017 06:12 AM