Beggars of Life (William A. Wellman, 1928)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Beggars of Life.

criterion logoFollowing his Best Picture win at the inaugural Academy Awards, William A. Wellman made Beggars for Life, an adaptation of Jim Tully’s best-selling classic of hobo literature.  This gripping drama casts cinema icon Louise Brooks as a girl on the lam after killing her lecherous adoptive father.  Dressed in boy’s clothes, she navigates through the dangerous tramp underworld with the help of a handsome and devoted drifter (Richard Arlen) and encounters the dangerous, but warm-hearted hobo legend Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery).  Loaded with stunning visuals and empathetic performances, this dark, realistic drama is Brooks’ best American film, Paramount’s first foray into synchronized sound, and a masterpiece of late-silent era feature films.

Disc Features:

  • New digital restoration, created in collaboration with the George Eastman House
  • Four musical scores: a piano score by silent film accompanist Steve Sterner, a pan-temporal score by Daryl Fleming and the Public Domain, one by Neil Brand and skiffle band The Dodge Brothers and a Wurlitzer score by organist Jim Riggs, all presented as uncompressed stereo soundtracks on the Blu-ray edition
  • Introduction by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns
  • Audio commentary by film historian Richard Koszarski
  • Jim Tully: The Most Hated Man in Hollywood, a new interview program with Tully biographers Mark Dawidziak and Paul J. Bauer
  • New interview with William Wellman Jr. on his director father and the making of the film
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring new essays by film critic Mark Kermode and filmmaker John Sayles, a collection of reviews on the film’s release curated by Thomas Gladysz of the Louise Brooks Society, and Jim Tully’s original novel, reprinted specially for this release.

Beggars of Life opens with its most oft-cited sequence.  Jim, a drifter played by Richard Arlen, tentatively enters a rural home enticed by the smell of hot food, only to discover a dead man seated at the dining table.  He immediately sees Nancy (Louise Brooks) coming down the second floor stairs, already dressed in boy’s clothes and frozen by her discovery.  An axial cut moving in on Nancy reveals Brooks’ iconic beauty and a look of desperate fear.  She tells Jim she killed her adoptive father to escape his abuse and lechery, the sequence of his death superimposed over her aggrieved face.  On the run from the law, Jim sets off with Nancy, planning to set her aboard a boxcar and then continue on to Canada for a fresh start of his own.  Brooks is unsurprisingly gorgeous here and the film is the first real insight to her onscreen talent, breaking from the light comedies she previously appeared in.  Reviews for her performance were generally positive, however Brooks had already soured on the “Hollywood scene” and her experiences with Arlen and Wellman’s riotous set likely did little to muddy her decision to promptly flee Paramount for Europe and brilliant films like G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929) and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) and Augusto Genina’s Prix de Beauté (1930).

After Nancy proves incapable of train-hopping on her own, Jim agrees to take her along with him and Beggars of Life provides sequences of their efforts to sneak aboard a train, ride on the back of a carriage, and find a cozy spot for the night within hay bales in a farmer’s field.  Jim also discovers posters promising a cash reward for Nancy’s capture, confirming that their escape to Canada can come none to soon.  While Nancy and Jim are destined to be romantically inclined, these sequences (and, in fact, all of Beggars of Life) portray their attraction and commitment in entirely platonic terms, sweetly and gently growing into something powerful and unrelenting by the film’s end.  The truth of the situation couldn’t be farther from the film’s fiction.  Arlen and Brooks were openly hostile with each other, their distaste for one another dating back to their prior film together, Rolled Stockings (Richard Rossen, 1927).  Brooks would later claim that Arlen, emboldened with some liquid courage, openly begrudged her financial success with Paramount, going so far as to complain about his “stinking $400 a week” and her inability to act.  In fairness to Arlen, his career frustrations may have been fairly perceived.  After a couple of starring performances that followed Beggars of Life, Arlen’s career was typified by minor roles in film and television lasting into the 1960s.

Jim and Nancy make their way to a “jungle,” a hobo camp set up in seclusion.  There, we are introduced to Oklahoma Red, played by Wallace Beery.  Red is an imposing figure amongst the hobos, clearly a storied individual whose name garners immediate recognition and whose good nature belies his comfort with violence.  Nancy’s disguise is quickly seen through and Red attempts to claim her for himself and the rest of the hobos.  The jungle is broken up by police searching for Nancy and the hobos escape to a box car where Red organizes a kangaroo court to try and sentence Jim.  This satirical sequence is interrupted when the tramps are obliged to escape the cops and railroad bulls that swarm the train.  These sequences are legitimately tense, as the threat of assault and sexual violence seems readily tangible.  Wellman was certainly known for his disdain of actors and his admiration for masculine bravado.  The 17 days of location shooting in the Californian border town of Jacumba were full of dangerous stunts, plenty of drinking, and a fair share of fist fights.  Brooks reported that Wellman kept on site 20 true hobos who worked as extras in exchange for booze and engaged in “pranks” that generally involved setting things aflame.  Wellman was unfazed by these activites, instead spending his time working out life-threatening railway stunts that would look authentic without resorting to undercranking the camera.  Train engineers where naturally stunned when Wellman casually crashed a flatcar and caboose into a gorge, narrowly missing his second cameraman and taking the camera with it.

Beggars of Life concludes with Red, Jim, and Nancy holed up in shack, hiding from the police, and still at odds over Nancy’s fate.  When Nancy is prepared to sacrifice herself for Jim, Red is emotionally struck by their true love for each other and allows them to escape – a significant change of heart for someone prepared to participate in Nancy’s gang-rape the night before.  Further, Red dresses a dead hobo in Nancy’s clothes and fakes her death in front of law enforcement, sacrificing himself in the process and allowing Jim and Nancy to presumably escape to Canada.  By the film’s conclusion, the sheer force of Beery’s character has made him the film’s epicentre.  His naturalist performance seems to anticipate the coming of sound.  While other actors stare and hold their facial expressions for silent film observation, Beery seems in perpetual motion – jawing and caterwauling, gesturing and pontificating.  Paramount must have seen something in Beery, as Beggars of Life was the studio’s first effort in synchronized sound and they chose their first sound sequence to be Beery singing “Don’t You Hear Them Bells?”  Unfortunately, this audio sequence is lost and only the silent edition of Beggars of Life remains.  For as difficult a co-star Beery was reported to be, Brooks held his commitment to acting, particularly on Wellman’s riotous set, in great esteem, saying, “Neither God nor the Devil could have influenced Beery’s least gesture before the camera.  His Oklahoma Red is a little masterpiece.”

Beery would later co-star in Sam Wood’s Way for a Sailor (1930) with Jim Tully, author of Beggars of Life‘s source novel and the film’s co-screenwriter.  Way for a Sailor provides our only film footage of the author, a small, tough redhead who once boxed as a featherweight.  Tully wrote 14 novels, would be considered the father of hard-boiled fiction if he was better remembered (called by Tully expert Mark Dawidziak as “the missing link between Jack London and Jack Kerouac), and was a household name in America until the 1950s when he became almost completely forgotten.  A one-time road kid riding the rails in between stints in fleabag circuses and chain factories, Tully went on to become a celebrated author, press agent and ghost writer to Charlie Chaplin, and tinsel town’s first gossip columnist, earning him the moniker of the most hated/feared man in Hollywood.  Still, Tully made good friends in the film industry including Wallace Beery, Clark Gable, W. C. Fields, Frank Capra, and James Cagney (who got his start in a stage adaptation of Tully’s Beggars of Life).  Brooks felt no love for Tully however, calling him “short and fat with his belly hanging over his belt, yellow teeth to match his face and hair, full of the vanity of Vanity Fair and H. L. Menken.”

Tony Millionaire National RansomCriterion is noted for the bountiful special features that accompany their disc releases and Beggars of Life is ideally suited for Criterion treatment given the wealth of content available for unpacking in a deluxe edition of the film.  It is historically significant, both generally, as it reveals a hobo culture suspected but generally hidden from mainstream America (remember, the Great Depression has not yet occurred at the time of the film’s release and the film itself is set in the 1890s), and specifically to the film industry, as the film was an early experiment in synchronized sound.  As described above, the film had a notorious production history thanks to some highly unique personalities, many now legendary for their difficult or irascible natures, some even achieving cult status in their own right.  Beggars of Life itself is expertly executed, full of clever effects and editing techniques, making it a dusty, threadbare beauty.  Theorists are left with a variety of tantalizing topics to explore and tease apart – the corrupt pastoral, cross-dressing, sexual violence, liminal cultures, class struggles, legal authority, race-mixing.  With so much to offer and a restored 35mm print out there, we can only wonder why Beggars of Life hasn’t already found its way to the Criterion Collection specifically or to home-viewing in general.

Tony Millionaire Secret Profane SugarcaneTony Millionaire seems a particularly apt choice for a Criterion cover commission.  His fountain pen-created works emulating newspaper strip artists of the 1920s and ’30s makes him stylistically consistent to Beggars of Life, while his fantastic, sometimes grotesque, content would greatly compliment some of the more unsettling aspects of the film.  In fact, seeing some sequentialized portions of the film presented in the booklet or on the reverse side of the cover insert as adapted by Millionaire in that newspaper strip style would be a wonderful treat.

Credits:  Beggars of Life appears to have been restored by the George Eastman House, with assistance by The Film Foundation.  The 4 identified scores all exist, having been performed with Beggars of Life at different screenings.  Steve Sterner is a New York-based accompanist who often works with Film Forum and provided a piano score to the film at Film Forum’s 2012 Wellman Festival.  Daryl Fleming and the Public Domain provided the accompanying music for the Eastman House restoration of William Desmond Taylor’s Huckleberry Finn (1920) and provided musical accompaniment to The Warhol‘s 2012 screening of Beggars of Life.  British film critic Mark Kermode is a member of The Dodge Brothers, who have provided music for screenings of Beggars of Life, White Oak (Lambert Hillyer, 1921), and The Ghost Who Never Returns (Abram Room, 1928).  Jim Riggs manned the Paramount Theatre’s Wurlitzer for a 2010 Seattle screening of Beggars of Life.  Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, a lover of all things historical and American, provides the foreword to Paul Bauer and Mark Dawidziak’s biography on Jim Tully and seemed an interesting choice for an introduction given that he has yet to connect with the Criterion Collection.  Richard Koszarski is a silent film expert and has already provided a commentary to the Collection, so a repeat visit appeared in order.  The feature on Jim Tully was inspired by Mark Dawidziak’s interview at the 2011 Ohioana Book Festival and his and Paul Bauer’s 2011 lecture on Tully for the Akron-Summit County Public Library speaker series.  Both are worthwhile for Dawidziak’s account of Tully’s fistfight with Hollywood leading man John Gilbert and their subsequent casting as co-stars in Way for a SailorWilliam Wellman Jr. has previously introduced his father’s films and has expressed his father’s fondness for Beggars of Life.  Now in his 70s, it would be wonderful to commit these recollections for posterity and avoid losing Wellman Jr.’s insight into his father’s career.  John Sayles provides the forward to Kent State University Press’s edition of Jim Tully’s Shanty Irish.  Sayles, another artist fascinated with American populism and a writer in his own right, seems well suited to comment on this vision of the American underclass.  This post owes a significant debt to Thomas Gladysz’s “‘Beggars of Life’ With Louise Brooks Screens in New York” which provides a substantial review of the film’s reception by various Los Angeles and New York newspapers and columnists.  Collecting these reviews for a booklet would provide a novel opportunity to visit the reception of a quite old film and consider the culture it existed in at the time of its production and release.  Finally, Laura Horak’s essay on Beggars of Life available at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s website was an invaluable source of production information.

3 thoughts on “Beggars of Life (William A. Wellman, 1928)

  1. Mr Harvey Wright September 22, 2013 / 1:37 pm

    It it possible to get Beggars of Life on a region free disc ?

    • spinenumbered September 22, 2013 / 2:21 pm

      Not sure. I think most people go to Grapevine Video to fill their OOP silent cinema needs, although I’ve never bought from them. I can’t tell if there is any encoding on their discs, but at least Beggars of Life is part of their catalogue –

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