Log in

Beggars of Life (Blu-ray Review)

4 Sep, 2017 By: Mike Clark

Kino Lorber
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Wallace Beery, Richard Arlen, Louise Brooks.

My No. 1 still-photo image of Louise Brooks would be from her two incomparable films abroad for G.W. Pabst late in the 1920s — specifically any of the ones from Pandora’s Box where you can tell that her iconic “Lulu” character is capable of doing the Germanic version of a clog dance on some fool’s heart.

No. 2, though, would be of the actress in male hobo garb from 1928’s Beggars of Life, which director William A. Wellman (whose career lasted so long that he ended up directing Tab Hunter) always rated as the personal favorite of his silent films. This is not insignificant because the year before, Wellman had directed Wings — the first best picture Oscar winner, a movie that still delivers and one that did a whole lot for his career.

Brooks was one of those actresses whose yowza-ish looks were potent both 90 years ago and today, so the men’s duds donned in Beggars makes for an interesting visual, to say the least, though one certainly essential to the plot. Based on a widely read underclass autobiography by vagabond-ish Jim Tully (who, thanks to IMDb.com, I notice died the day I was born), the film is unusual, even by pre-Code standards, for exonerating a character of a make-no-bones-about-it murder. This Blu-ray’s accompanying essay by Nick Pinkerton — a good last name to be writing on a vintage railroad movie —- has a lot of good material on Tully, who definitely knew the movie’s milieu. We begin as a hobo played by Wings star Richard Arlen shows up at a farmer’s door offering work for food and notes that the farmer is good and dead in a kitchen chair. Also in the house is the latter’s foster home victim (Brooks), who makes no bones about having bumped off this creep after too many months of getting pawed. (Which in movie code of the time, likely means far worse). So the two are off to hopped freight trains and the hobo jungle for what Arlen thinks will be merely a temporary leap on the part of his makeshift ward. This is not what happens.

Later, after her career termination — was she pushed or did she jump? — atop all kinds of personal-life bumps, Brooks renewed herself by finding a life with the almost folkloric George Eastman House gang in Rochester, N.Y. — becoming a first-class movie journalist of remembrances in the process. She wrote substantially on Beggars in her landmark collection Lulu in Hollywood, which I stupidly got rid of in normal household downsizing by one of my (cough) age. To my faint recollection, which seems to be confirmed by one of two compatible voiceover commentaries here, Brooks had mixed feelings about the picture’s quality. It is true — due to what feels like too many non-Wellman cooks in the creative process — that, after a rousing start, the pacing becomes more languorous as the picture progresses. This is a major reason why Beggars just isn’t in the Wings class, and yet it does really resonate upon sustained reflection. The outdoor location footage helps a lot, but even the drab boxcar interiors (which take up a lot of the final two-thirds) effectively evoke mood. MGM might have prettified this story, but Paramount didn’t.

Interestingly, this is not a story of the Depression but of a pre-Crash period when there were still a lot of hoboes to go around. (For a not dissimilar story set in the Depression, see Wellman’s essential Wild Boys of the Road from 1933, which has a key scene set in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio.) Beggars’ hobo king is played by top-billed Wallace Beery, here on the brink of real stardom that endured until his 1949 death and who again is cast as a guy whose halitosis probably has halitosis. Wellman liked Beery in real life, and so did Wellman Jr., who serves up one of the commentaries here; otherwise, this was not a universally held opinion, though Brooks herself wasn’t exactly an incessant beam of sunlight when it came to her professional colleagues. Despite some skirmishes, Wellman Sr. liked Brooks’ toughness and admired her desire to take on the dangerous moving-train stunt work (not that he was going to allow her to do it). Later, he wanted her for the Jean Harlow role she turned down in The Public Enemy, which (despite my love for Harlow in her comedies) would likely have been enough of an improvement to rewrite film history on a couple levels.

A horrifically high number of Paramount silents were allowed to decompose permanently (thanks again, studio suits of the day), with the initially thought-to-be-lost Beggars among the ones that preservationists were able to save in its original soundless version — though there had once also been an 11th-hour sound-effects version rigged up during the talkie transition that did make it to theaters once upon a time. Beggars was not included with the Paramount silents like The Covered Wagon, It’s the Old Army Game and Old Ironsides that came out on VHS in the years long before I began cultivating my Charlie Rich Silver Fox look (all three on are Kino’s “coming” Blu-ray list). So, it’s a pleasure to see it here in a decent print and, in fact, the first watchable one I’ve ever been able to catch of it. The non-Wellman commentator here is Thomas Gladysz, founding director of the Louise Brooks Society (a noble calling). He’s one of those welcome guys who knows how many miles to the gallon the 87th supporting player got on his car, and his contribution is welcome. Certainly, I did not know that prominently featured black actor Blue Washington was the father of Kenny, an actor in his own right but also a major NFL jock who also excelled in baseball.

Add Comment