Year: 1928

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

Wow, two big birthdays in a row!

Robert Montgomery is just my absolute favorite ever. An amazing actor, a fantastic director, and very handsome man.

Montgomery had a wonderful talent in front of the camera. He could play almost any kind of character in any kind of movie. Romantic melodrama, screwball comedy, even psychological thriller. Montgomery could do it all and he could do it brilliantly.

Sadly, he’s not as remembered today as he should be. He deserves to be remembered among the greats of the 1930s and the 1940s. Nearly all of his films could be considered obscure classics. I’ve seen 54 of his films, but I don’t want to go overkill here. Instead of just listing my favorites, I’m going to do a nice little service for everyone and talk about the rare films that you can get at http://www.freemoviesondvd.com

The Big House (1930) – Montgomery costars with Wallace Beery and Chester Morris in this prison drama. Those of you who are mostly familiar with Montgomery as the suave playboy are in for a treat here, with Montgomery going against the type he would late establish for himself by playing something of a nervous weasel.

The Gallant Hours (1960) – Montgomery directs this war drama starring James Cagney. It’s a really interesting war film, done without battle scenes.

Fugitive Lovers (1934) – Montgomery stars with my favorite of his leading ladies, Madge Evans, in this really sweet road film about an escaped convict and a showgirl who fall in love when they meet on a bus.

Hide-Out (1934) – Montgomery and Maureen O’Sullivan make a really sweet pairing in this unique, but genuine love story about an injured gangster who finds sanctuary with a family on a farm. He falls in love with the sweet daughter. This movie has one of the absolute most romantic scenes of the 1930s.

June Bride (1948) – Not a great film, but it’s pretty fun and Montgomery and Davis have decent chemistry together.

When Ladies Meet (1934) – Definitely not one of my favorite Montgomery films. Kind of dull and the characters are all pretty unlikeable. But you get to see Bob with two of his best leading ladies, Myrna Loy and Ann Harding.

Haunted Honeymoon (1940) – I really enjoy this movie. Robert Montgomery and the completely lovely Constance Cummings play reluctant crime solvers who get sucked into a murder mystery on their honeymoon. A colorful cast of characters and a good romance between its leads makes this movie really fun.

The Saxon Charm (1948) – I still haven’t gotten my hands on this one yet (soon, oh very soon), but it’s available and I think it looks pretty good.

Ride the Pink Horse (1947) – A really brutal noir that doesn’t shy away from violence. Montgomery gives a really good performance, as well as directs.

Inspiration (1931) – This movie doesn’t get enough love. A lot of people say that Montgomery and Garbo just didn’t go well together, I think their restrained, under the surface chemistry was perfect for this movie about repressed love and sexuality.

The Single Standard (1929) – Yeah, I’m cheating on this one. Montgomery is just an extra in this film, but it’s one of my very favorite Garbo movies and everyone should see it.

The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937) – Another Montgomery movie that I just downright adore. Joan Crawford was one of his best costars. This is a really fun and unique story about jewel thief Crawford falling for Montgomery, the nephew of her mark.

Letty Lynton (1932) – A fantastic pre-code melodrama with Joan Crawford giving one of her best performances

Faithless (1932) – A beautiful Depression era romance. Bob and Tallulah Bankhead are perfect together. Montgomery gives a really wonderful performance, but this movie belongs to Bankhead.

Fast and Loose (1939) – I’m such a sucker for screwball detective movies, especially when they star Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell.

Night Must Fall (1937) – This is probably Montgomery’s best performance. He completely breaks type to play a creepy, tortured, insane murderer.

There you go. freemoviesondvd.com is a wonderful resource. You pay less than $10 for each DVD (and that includes shipping) and these films (and so many others they have) are more than worth it.