Film review by Jason Day of the silent movie Beggars Of Life starring Louise Brooks, Wallace Beery and Richard Arlen. Directed by William A. Wellman.
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Nancy (Louise Brooks) has shot her abusive stepfather after he attempted to rape her. Disguising herself as a down and out boy, she runs away with hobo Jim (Richard Arlen) who plans to stowaway on freight trains and travel toward Canada. It’s a dangerous journey, with the police on their tail and their only ‘friends’ are a band of opportunistic, untrustworthy tramps led by the bullish ‘Oaklahoma Red’ (Wallace Beery).
Review, by Jason Day
29/04/2012 – Lucky were those of us who grabbed the chance to see this at The Barbican, a rare showing of Wellman’s classic silent drama starring the luminous Brooks as a cross-dressing murderess on the run, with a stunning, entirely appropriate “rockabilly” score by The Dodge Brothers, with premier Film Critic Mark Kermode accompanying them on the Double Bass and Hermonica.
There could be no more desolate series of landscapes for Wellman to draw on for a bleak, desperate tale than the Mojave desert in California and he utilises the expansive, rocky, infertile and never ending terrain to pointedly signify the mighty and probably fruitless journey ahead of this unhappy boy and girl.
It’s captured in arrestingly bright shades of white and grey by Gerrard, who also makes sure that Brooks, never remotely resembling anything like a male throughout, looks as pretty as a picture.
For most modern viewers, Brooks is probably the film’s main draw. Mostly remembered for the two films she made for G.W. Pabst in Germany shortly after this film and her later series of penetrating, acerbic criticism of the people/studios she worked for, this is probably her best and certainly most highly regarded American picture.
Brooks had an impish, childlike screen persona; even when faced with the hardships of life on the road, she still flashes that brilliant smile, her eyes registering fun and pleasure. Interestingly, she looks more attractive in her male identity clothes than when dolled up in the most hideous dress and hat combination.
Handsome Arlen is little remembered now but was a big star in the late 20’s and is a sweet leading man for Brooks. Bleary Beery is top-billed however as the bad guy who mistreats the couple, but eventually turns good.
It’s a funny, pantomimic turn that certainly helps the film pick up as Wellman, despite fashioning a good looking film (a powerful series of close-ups are used as Brooks relates how she came to kill her stepfather) lets the drama and action sag noticeably until the very last few minutes with a runaway train.
There are also some howlingly bad continuity errors (Brooks’ cap remains on even after she’s fallen from a train and tumbled down a hill) and script bloopers that defy explanation (when the destitute hobos find out there’s a $1,000 bounty on Brooks’ head, they order her to leave rather than turn her in and claim the cash).
Cast & credits
Director: William A. Wellman. 100mins. Paramount.
Producer: Jesse L. Lasky, Adolph Zukor.
Writer: Benjamin Glazer.
Camera: Henry W. Gerrard.
Music: Karl Hajos.
Wallace Beery, Richard Arlen, Louise Brooks, Blue Washington, Kewpie Morgan, Mike Donlin, Roscoe Karns, Bob Perry, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams.