A Film/Book Review by Tony Williams.
While we eagerly await the Criterion release of The Sound of Music with audio-commentary by Quentin Tarantino, joking aside, it is pleasurable to see Kino-Lorber’s latest contribution to a prestigious film repertoire needing release to a wider audience rather than already seen “usual suspects.” Commonly regarded as perhaps Louise Brooks’s best American film, prior to her European work, with Hawks’s A Girl in Every Port (1928) running a close Hollywood second, Beggars of Life was rated by William Wellman (1896-1975) as the favorite of all his silent films. Made after Wings (1927, preceding the lost Ladies of the Mob (1928), and succeeding the also-lost The Legion of the Condemned (1928), the film’s main star was Wallace Beery, who does not appear until thirty minutes into the narrative. But as of late, the focus is on the legendary Louise Brooks, who eventually wrote an oft-published article on the film “On Location with Billy Wellman” that later appeared in her 1982 collection of essays Lulu in Hollywood. (1) Based on a 1924 book by now-forgotten hobo writer Jim Tully (1896-1947) as well as a Maxwell Anderson stage adaptation that both Brooks (1906-1985) and Charles Chaplin (1899-1977) once saw together, the work appeared ideal for screen adaption. Combining the talents of director, original novelist, and stars who were once variously runaways or hobos in their youth, the film indirectly reflected the experiences of its leading talents who were either alienated from American society in the past or in the future, as Brooks would be herself before her eventual rediscovery as a screen icon and film chronicler.
With two audio-commentaries by William Wellman Jr. and world renowned Brooks expert (and occasional Film International contributor) Thomas Gladysz, this DVD version contains comprehensive material for both the academic and general audience who would not ordinarily have the opportunity to study silent films in most college cinema studies classes now concentrating on the “popular” and flavors of the month, with a few notable exceptions. Today, a treasure of diverse cinematic visions, both past and present, are now becoming available to the arena it more appropriately belongs to, namely the general audience spared from trite academic “dedicated followers of fashion” (to quote The Kinks) or budget-conscious college administrators interminably questioning the “vocational” value of such offerings. Now that many surviving versions of films initially mentioned in Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By (1968) have become available to us, we can enjoy material that once only existed in archive form in various stages of preservation.
Beggars of Life begins in an exciting narrative and visual manner. Hoping to gain food at a farmer’s door, The Boy (Richard Arlen) discovers the occupant killed by The Girl (Louise Brooks) whom he learns had acted in self-defense facing rape, a murder charge she knows will lead to execution since the jury will not consider what motives the deceased had for adopting her, in addition to “Christian charity” and domestic slavery. As he encounters her now dressed in male attire, she recalls the previous incident not by titles but by visuals. Utilizing sophisticated techniques of late silent cinema, Wellman shows Brooks in close up to articulate her emotional response to events, while a series of dissolves reveals what has happened to her. This is one of the best sequences in the film that depicts the achievements of an art form prematurely cut short by the introduction of sound and confirming the feelings of talents of silent cinema, such as Chaplin and Mary Pickford (1892-1977) that much was lost by the introduction of this new technology. The rest of the film never reaches the heights of this particular sequence, but it is compensated for by the astute silent film craftsmanship of its director, despite the reservations of Brooks in her article that the remainder of the film left much to be desired, especially with the involvement of scenarist Benjamin Glazer (1887-1956). In his audio-commentary, Gladysz often takes issue with both Brooks and Wellman’s very different estimation of this film, stating that Wings still has much in its favor but Wellman’s preference for Beggars may be due to the fact that this was a personal project for him, and studio interference was minimal. Perhaps the strategic virtues of location shooting away from studio interference, also preferred by John Ford (1894-1973) and Anthony Mann (1906-1967, had much to do with this?
Naturally, as in Jack London’s The Road (1907), a less grim version of hobo life is depicted in this film, as several contemporary reviewers noted. However, there are incidents of threat as when the discovery of The Girl’s sexual identity leads to her possible acquisition as “community property” by a kangaroo court headed by Beery’s A-No I (“one among equals” in the hobo camp as Gladysz describes him in his audio-commentary) figure of Oklahoma Red. There are also surprising images of racial integration at odds with the “outside world” seen in “Blue” Washington’s Black Mose, who is not only accepted by the predominantly white hobo community but appears to be the only person to care for one of its sick and dying members. It is significant that the only time he resorts to stereotyped behavior is towards the end, where he is confronted by a white posse. This is clearly a survival strategy. (2)
As Gladysz points out in his commentary, the outsider figure of the hobo was a common feature in American history well before the stock market crash of 1929, a year after the film’s appearance. Jack London (1896-1916) had marched with Coxey’s Army in the 1890s and recounted his experiences in The Road. Wellman would later make two sound-related films during the Great Depression – Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and Heroes for Sale (1933), the last possibly having the only film reference to Carbondale, Il. in Hollywood cinema (the home/workplace of yours truly), a location that is forgettable anyway, on a map depicting the desperate odyssey of tramps, many of whom are World War I veterans. Naturally, Beggars of Life concludes with a romantic happy ending for Boy and Girl, with Oklahoma Red performing a noble sacrifice to cover the exodus of the young lovers to the Promised Land of Alberta, Canada. Red is a hobo Moses touched by seeing romantic love for the first time in his life. However, contemporary audiences must have been aware of the real grim realities outside, and Beggars of Life does not engage in denial, as contemporary cinema now does concerning the plight of the homeless.
Though interest today concerning this DVD mostly lies in discovering the unused star persona potential of its leading actress, a condition Brooks bears responsibility for in addition to other factors, Beggars of Life is a notable example of late silent cinema that, despite failing to achieve that artistic form of organic unity hailed by critics such as Lindsay Anderson and Robin Wood, deserves attention for what it does achieve. Good direction, professional acting, valuable use of locations, and its compromised (though necessary) depiction of “How the Other Half Lives” with a sympathy totally lacking in today’s brutal world, are its commanding features.
The two audio-commentaries complement each other professionally. William Wellman Jr. provides important details about the cinematic quality of the film, his father’s emotional involvement in the project, background information, and the specific techniques employed. However, Gladysz’s commentary is the best one I’ve heard recently in terms of providing both historical information and critical observations. As well as focusing on Brooks, he also sees the star in relation to the background of the film, recognizing it as depicting “the dark heart of America’s heartland” and revealing a “pastoral life gone wrong,” in contrast to the usual Americana celebrations in Hollywood films. It also reveals the usually taboo “mingling of races” on film, as well as a cross-dressing theme. The latter would later appear in Viktor und Viktoria (1933) and its various remakes. Gladysz also notes Wellman’s frequent use of foot motifs, both in the visuals and titles, that naturally complement the tramp motif of this film. The critic understands Wellman’s intention to go into a different direction from Wings to make a film intended to move the audience away from their usual entertainment complacency by emphasizing gritty realism that opposes the glitzy values of the Jazz Age. He sees Wings as the better movie while also noting issues of pacing and melodrama in Beggars that hinder it from reaching its real potential. Beggars of Life is a film very much ahead of its time, one filmed by a maverick dedicated to a project he regarded as inherently personal and not a mere studio assignment.
The 104-page booklet by Gladysz, Beggars of Life: A Companion to the 1928 Film, is an ideal supplement to the film. It contains information that also appears on the audio-commentary, as well as more detailed information concerning sound elements added to the later version that is now lost. Nothing contained in this chapter devalues the surviving silent version, which suggests that the late additions, attempting to adapt to sound technology, were little better than uncomfortable hybrids seen in other surviving versions of similar studio adaptations in the last year of the 1920s.
- For a listing of all the article’s appearances see Thomas Gladysz, “Louise Brooks Looks Back”, Beggars of Life: A Companion to the 1928 Film, p.61. n.5. I first read it in Focus on Film 12 (1972): pp. 51-56.
- One wonder whether the depiction owes much to Wellman’s contemporary in the Lafayette Flying Corps, Eugene Bullard (1895-1961), the only African-American to serve in this group and who, naturally, was refused admission into the American version of the Flying Corps when America entered the War. He chose to serve in the French infantry for the rest of the War earning the Crois de Guerre, France’s highest military decoration, for his service but remained forgotten on his return to America until
General De Gaulle requested to meet him on a State visit when the former hero was working as an elevator operator. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugene_Bullard;
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is also a contributing Editor to Film International.