Editor’s Note: Beggars of Life will be released by Kino Lorber on August 22, 2017.
A fantastic achievement in both entertainment and form, William Wellman’s Beggars of Life (1928) received only a tepid response on its original release. Based on Jim Tully’s second (of over 40) books about his years riding the rails, Beggars portrays hobos as all-American representatives of freedom. Not that it’s changed much since, but early Hollywood movies were often obsessed with the notion of the nobility of poverty. From Chaplin’s Tramp to My Man Godfrey, Hollywood was happy to sell the idea that every homeless person in the country was glad to be without a roof over their head, and when they weren’t solving the problems of those unfortunate folks suffering with their stacks of money, they were singing odes to their own toe-tappin’ misfortune.
It’s not that Beggars of Life isn’t a little guilty of the same, but its optimism is grounded by plenty of grit and realism that has made the film a favorite for decades. By placing the impossibly beautiful Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen in a series of delightful little moments early on, Beggars risks romanticizing the terrible struggles that many were enduring in the early days of the Great Depression. But Wellman, often a sentimentalist, was also a realist, and he glides the film seamlessly away from those early light-hearted moments to a more genuine, frightening place.
Beggars of Life opens with a man, a girl, and a gunshot victim. The man is Jim (Arlen), a vagrant who has stopped by a house one morning hoping to score some breakfast, instead finding the dead body of the owner, his ham and eggs still warm. The girl is Nancy (Louise Brooks), a young woman who has just shot this man, her adopted father, in self defense after years of horrific abuse. She’s donned a set of men’s clothes and is about to set off for parts unknown, and Jim promises to get her on a train that will take her far away, but they like each other, as boys and girls do, and decided to travel together.
Along the way, they stumble into trouble at a hobo jungle, and end up on a train with several hostile and leering men lead by Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery). A struggle ensues as to which of the hobo leaders is going to “get” The Girl, all while Jim fights to protect her from both his fellow vagabonds and the police who want to charge The Girl with murder.
Like many of the best silent films, the visuals in Beggars of Life rely on expressions of truth and emotion rather than direct depictions of reality. Sharp editing by Alyson Shaffer energizes the (almost literal) railroad plot, while Henry Gerrard’s masterful cinematography practically glistens. In one beautiful moment we get little pinpoints of moonlight in Lulu’s eyes as she huddles for warmth on a farm, even though we know that the moon is blocked out by a dingy old haystack. Arlen, frequently criticized as being stiff and bland, really delivers the goods in several key scenes, a rare display of intensity audiences wouldn’t see again until 1932’s Island of Lost Souls.
If what we see of Beggars of Life on the big screen is neat and orderly, what went on behind the scenes was anything but. In 1926, Wellman had been so excited by Arlen’s screen test for Wings that he shouted, “Who’s that good-looking son of a bitch?” at the very sight of him, but now found himself frustrated at Arlen’s tendency to give a one-dimensional performance. Brooks wasn’t impressed with Arlen either, later telling historian Kevin Brownlow that she had scoffed at Arlen bragging about his time in the Royal Flying Corps, shrugging it off as a lie. (It wasn’t.)
Brooks also reported that both Wellman and Beery were irritated that she had delayed production on the film; the eccentric actress was frequently hiding from studios and making herself almost impossible to find. Louise wasn’t alone in that regard, however. Actor Woody Strode once wrote that his good friend Edgar “Blue” Washington, featured co-star in Beggars of Life, was a notorious bad boy who would disappear for days on end, holding up production until he was good and ready to come back to the set.
Washington was a former pro boxer who went on to a promising career in the Negro Leagues, but who left sports behind in 1919 for life as a supporting player in Hollywood. Well liked by his colleagues, he was frequently singled out by critics for his portrayals in what were then called “race roles.” His role as Big Mose, the gentle giant of the hobos who spends his time taking care of a critically ill pal, was called “the most important Negro screen role of the year” in the press, and he does indeed put in a stellar performance of a nuanced character. There are unfortunate stereotypes at play in the character of Big Mose, but in a great little twist toward the end, he knowingly riffs on some of those racist stereotypes in order to pull one over on the cops.
Washington was just one of several recognizable character actors a cast which included Mike Donlin, Kewpie Morgan and Roscoe Karns, who would go on to become a stalwart of the pre-Code era. Wellman, committed to presenting a more authentic and genuine story, also cast several actual hobos for the film. Audiences didn’t really know what to make of that, and several critics at the time were put off by his dedication to authenticity. Despite a peppy song (in a synchronized audio segment that no longer survives) and a lengthy comedic scene, Beggars was considered too depressing by the likes of Variety, The New York Times, and others.
Over the years, Beggars of Life has begun to earn the acclaim and attention it always deserved. William Wellman once said that Beggars was “perhaps the best silent film I ever made,” significant coming from the man who directed Wings (1927), and many modern audiences agree with him. With an exciting yet romantic script, delightful visuals, and what is arguably Louise Brooks’ best performance in an American film, Beggars of Life is a must-see film of the silent era.
Wellman’s son William Wellman, Jr. delivers audio commentary on Kino Lorber’s upcoming home video release of Beggars of Life, which utilizes the best print of the film known to exist, the 35mm version preserved at George Eastman Museum. Another audio commentary by Thomas Gladysz, founder of The Louise Brooks Society, is included, as well as a new score by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra which uses some of the original 1928 music composed for the film. A booklet with an essay by Nick Pinkerton is also included.