Director: William Wellman
Cast: Louise Brooks, Wallace Beery, Richard Arlen
This film is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Beggars of Life is the last American picture the sensational Louise Brooks made before scurrying off to Deutschland to collaborate with G.W. Pabst. For this Paramount production, she was teamed up with surly taskmaster William Wellman for a match made in hell. To hear Wellman’s own son tell it, the studio loathed both the troublesome actress and this director and the heads thought pairing them together for an adaptation of Jim Tully’s novel would be just the ticket to ruin both their careers. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Beggars of Life is a beautiful tale of two hoboes’ difficult journey to find happiness and a place to call home.
The film begins by showing us the handsome but rag tag tramp named Jim — Richard Arlen — stumbling upon a farmhouse with wonderful smells emanating out of the screendoor. He slowly glances inside and he sees a man seated with his back to the front door. The source of the wonderful aroma is the man’s as yet untouched breakfast. Obviously starving, Jim licks his lips and not being able to stand it any longer, he knocks on the door and asks if he can work in exchange for a meal. When the man does not acknowledge his pleas, our lead walks around the table and sees that the farmer has been killed by a bullet wound to the head. The audience can empathize with Jim’s confusion. Is the killer still in the house? Should I run or stay and quickly eat something? Are the authorities on their way? Just then a noise is made upstairs. A frightened young woman in men’s clothing (Brooks) emerges at the top of the stairs.
The girl named Nancy musters up the courage to descend the staircase and address this stranger. Brooks’ character is the stepdaughter of the deceased and yes, she shot him. Wellman takes this opportunity to superimpose the beautiful visage of the actress telling her story of self-defense over background scenes of an attempted rape at the hands of her stepfather. Apparently the child abuse had been occurring over a period of years and she could no longer take it. This is a fantastic visual sequence and it reminded me of camera techniques I’d seen used in Sunrise. Nancy is petrified and puzzled as to her next step. Jim reluctantly agrees to bring her along with him, primarily because he feels sorry for her and doesn’t want to see the youngster hanged. They decide to go separate ways at a set of railroad tracks. He’ll go west enroute to Canada and his uncle’s farm and she can head east. When our heroine fails miserably @ hopping her last train — falling painfully on her keester — Arlen’s character reluctantly accepts her as a traveling companion.
They sleep inside a haystack that evening and these are the funniest scenes in the picture. To have these complete strangers sleeping in such close, claustrophobic quarters is quite effective. Wellman takes full advantage of closeups on the two faces: Brooks frightened mug and Arlen’s inquisitive one. When Jim throws both his legs over hers the look on Brooks’ face is hilarious. The audience eventually realizes that he is just keeping her warm after seeing his companion shivering but the initial doubt as to his intentions is priceless. The next day Jim spots a wanted poster with Nancy’s picture on it offering $1,000 in reward money for her capture. He quickly seizes the poster before the girl sees it and stuffs it into his jacket pocket. By nightfall they reach a well-known encampment area frequented by other hoboes. The boisterous Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) is the leader of this bunch of misfits. When the Arkansas Snake questions his authority, the two men decide to strike a temporary truce so they can imbibe on the whiskey Red absconded with from a nearby still.
The more the Arkansas Snake — played by Bob Perry — examines the features of Jim’s younger “brother” the more suspicious he becomes. When he walks over and yanks Nancy’s cap off, the whole camp gasps: this hobo is a woman. Desperate to stop the chaos, Jim flashes the wanted poster and warns that while they all fight over the girl, the cops are closing in. At first Beery’s character isn’t too keen on a fugitive female traveling w/ his gang. The decision is foisted upon him when two law officers descend on the camp and spy the girl. Sheer numbers overwhelm the cops and the hoboes handcuff them together to a tree. The gang beats it for the nearest set of rails and they hop a steamer bound for Canada. Inside the moving train car, Oklahoma Red gets territorial and lustful deciding that they no longer have any use for Jim. A lame scene follows where Beery’s leader sets up a kangaroo court as a ruse and announces his unsurprising verdict as the judge: the girl stays and Arlen’s hoboe is to be booted off the train. Not too thrilled @ the prospect of being alone with a bunch of smelly, lecherous men, Brooks’ quick-thinking character decides to pit the men against themselves by claiming her own man. She chooses the Arkansas Snake to be her champion and the expected free for all comes in the form of a scrum. In the resulting melee, Jim is able to secure the leader’s gun and immediate disaster is averted.
The hoboes are unaware that there are several lawman aboard the same train searching for Brooks’ killer. When the dicks are spotted by someone in the gang, Oklahoma Red leaps outside and unlinks their cars from the rest of the train. The director presents us with some breathtaking moments as the cars pick up speed through a mountain pass. Beery’s character desperately turns the brake wheel and finally manages to slow their progress to something manageable. They reach the end of the track and are out of harms way for the moment. The group splits up with Jim and Nancy headed for a shack down in the canyon where they can care for the injured. Red comes back some time later in a stolen Ford and a dress he swiped from a clothesline. He tells the girl to put it on because the cops are looking for a woman in men’s clothing but we suspect his motives are of a more carnal nature. Once everyone gets over their shock at how gorgeous she looks, Oklahoma Red’s sinister plans are exposed. The gang leader tells her he has a car and the ability to take her with him to Canada and away from the grasp of the police. He won’t take Jim, however. What follows is not to be revealed here but I’ll just say that Oklahoma Red turns out to be one of the most selfless, unappreciated players in this story.
I guess Brooks’ memoirs contain anecdotes of Wellman’s misogyny. She accused him of being a wife beater and abusive toward women in general. She particularly didn’t like him making her do the stunts in the film herself. There are three pretty painful pratfalls in the movie and one fall off a train in particular that I find hard to believe they didn’t double for the combustible actress. Though they both reconciled in old age, Arlen and Brooks couldn’t stand each other either. Whatever the truths, the unpleasant experience of working on Beggars of Life was the impetus behind Brooks’ acceptance to go abroad and work with Pabst. I remember the great producer Robert Evans saying that fighting on a project is healthy. He was always more worried when everyone got along too well. Paramount’s expectations were not realized and the bickering director and actress would become icons of the film industry. Beggars of Life is one of the outstanding movies of the Silent Era and certainly the best American picture Brooks ever appeared in.
By James White