A World Turned Over: Wellman’s BEGGARS OF LIFE

November 28, 2017 - 2:54pm
Posted by Matt St John


These notes on William Wellman’s Beggars of Life by film scholar Thomas Gladysz are adapted from his new book, Beggars of Life: A Companion to the 1928 Film, as well as his audio commentary to the movie, which can be heard on the recent Kino Lorber release. A recently restored DCP, featuring a score by the Mount Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, will screen as part of our Silents Please! series on Friday, December 1 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Thomas Gladysz

In 1928, thirty-two year old director William Wellman was at the top of his profession. He was still basking in the critical and commercial triumph of Wings when his latest production, Beggars of Life, hit screens in the fall. Considered one the studio’s most important dramatic productions of the season, Beggars of Life was a film which couldn’t help but provoke. Wellman was already developing a reputation as a maverick director. And this film’s gritty realism stood at odds with the otherwise carefree glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age.

Beggars of Life was loosely based on a bestselling book of the same name by Jim Tully, a celebrated, rough-and-tumble, two-fisted “tramp writer of Hobohemia.” In Tully’s book—a kind of novelistic memoir, the author gave a grim account of the nearly seven years he spent wandering America as a “road kid.” It is a book not only about Tully’s journeys (many of them made jumping trains), but also about the colorful and sometimes unsavory characters he met along the way—in jails, bars, hobo camps and small towns across the Midwest.

Though cut from the same rough cloth, Wellman’s movie tells a different story. Beggars of Life is a tersely filmed drama about an orphan girl (Louise Brooks) dressed as a boy who flees the law after killing her abusive stepfather. With the help of a young tramp (Richard Arlen), the two hop a freight train, ending up at a hobo camp ruled by Oklahoma Red (future Oscar winner Wallace Beery). In this male-dominated underworld, with the police on their trail, danger is always close at-hand.

Wellman’s artfully photographed, morally dark tale of the down-and-out stars Beery. He receives top billing, and gives an especially vital performance. Arlen, an otherwise indifferent actor, is also good. However, it is Brooks (the only woman in the film) who dominates the screen in what is arguably her best role in her best American film. Brooks stands out, and not just for her appealing, androgynous appearance. Rather, she captures our attention through her authentic performance. As a young girl in Kansas, Brooks was sexually abused. It marked her life. In Beggars of Life, she plays a vulnerable young woman who is sexually assaulted.

In Wellman’s film, Brooks seemingly reached down inside herself to give an authentic performance. She would do so again in Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, two 1929 films where she once again plays a character who is sexually abused. Too what degree Brooks’ childhood experience affected her performance in these films we can never know, but, in all likelihood, it’s there in ways the camera could only record superficially. Watch Brooks’ face.

Beggars of Life is a film filled with transgression, acts that go against a law, rule, or code of conduct. In the film, Brooks plays a character identified only as “The Girl.” Her abuse at the hands of a farmer who has “adopted” her, and the assault that leads to his manslaughter, in turn causes this orphan to flee disguised as a boy.

On the run, this cross-dressing young woman descends into a desperate social stratum even lower than her standing as an orphan. Brooks’ and Arlen’s characters enter a “hobo jungle”—a camp of homeless men where criminal activity is rampant. We see fighting, theft, drinking (this was during prohibition), trespassing, attacks upon the police, and the suggestion that Brooks’ character would be claimed by another and in all-likelihood again sexually assaulted. Set in America’s heartland, this is pastoral life gone awry. And too, there is race mixing at a time when black and white characters were seldom shown as equals. In fact, the sole African American actor in the film, Edgar “Blue” Washington, plays one of its very few noble characters.

The late 1920’s marked a period of transition in the film industry, as the studios came to grips with emerging sound technologies. At the time, Wellman was resistant to using sound: according to film historian and Wellman authority Frank Thompson, Wellman felt its intrusion into his carefully constructed drama would prove disturbing to the mood of the film. The director, however, was overruled, and Paramount instructed special effect engineer Roy Pomeroy to supervise a scene that would feature a bit of dialogue and a song sung by Beery.

At the time, the use of sound equipment was notorious for slowing down a film’s action. Actors had to stand still in order to be heard in near proximity to hidden microphones. And that was a problem in the making of Beggars of Life, which was all about movement. Throughout the film, its many colorful characters are frequently in motion, either walking down a road or across a field or riding on trains, automobiles, or even a slow-moving bread-cart. When Wellman wants to indicate a character’s mood, he will show us their feet.

A bit of dialogue (song lyrics actually) was first heard well into the sound version of the movie, in the scene when Oklahoma Red first enters the story. Paramount executives wanted the stout actor to arrive, stand in the midst of the hobo camp, and sing a hobo song. Wellman thought such a scene would prove too static, and the director asked Beery to instead walk into the camp while singing and carrying a barrel of moonshine. The soundman insisted it couldn’t be done, and that the microphone couldn’t be moved.

The director’s near obsession with movement led to a solution, and something of an innovation. Others have been credited with first moving a microphone during the making of a film, but according to David O. Selznick, Wellman did it first for Paramount. Selznick made his claim to Kevin Brownlow, who included it in his 1968 book, The Parade's Gone By. “I was also present on the stage when a microphone was moved for the first time by Wellman, believe it or not. Sound was relatively new and at that time the sound engineer insisted that the microphone be steady. Wellman, who had quite a temper in those days, got very angry, took the microphone himself, hung it on a boom, gave orders to record—and moved it.”

Though a few earlier Paramount releases had also utilized music and sound effects, Beggars of Life was notably the first studio release to include spoken dialogue. The film was released in September of 1928 as both a silent and sound film (the latter with added music, sound effects—including the dramatic sounds of a locomotive, and a bit of dialogue, all of which are now considered lost). The sound version played in larger markets like Madison and Milwaukee, while the silent version played in smaller towns and those markets not yet “wired for sound.” Despite not being a full-fledged talkie, Beggars of Life remained in circulation for nearly two years, as both sound films and the Depression overtook the country.

Beggars of Life has long been a somewhat little known and little seen film. Within the last few years, however, things have begun to change. A rare surviving 16mm print of Beggars of Life (owned by the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York) was optically enlarged to 35mm, making it available to festivals and other special screenings. And earlier in 2017, Beggars of Life enjoyed its first real commercial release when Kino Lorber issued the George Eastman print on DVD/Blu-ray.

According to Wellman’s son, Beggars of Life was the director’s favorite among his silent movies. Not as grand in scope as Wings, Beggars of Life is, rather, a small masterpiece. It is also a film which speaks to our troubled times.