BEGGARS OF LIFE (William A. Wellman, 1928)

Although the film eventually veers into unconvincing melodrama hinging on a villainous predatory hobo’s self-sacrificial change of heart, the early parts of Wild Bill Wellman’s silent Beggars of Life are very beautiful and atmospheric. Indeed, the opening passage tries to prepare us for Oklahoma Red’s transformation with back-to-back reversals of expectation. Jim, a hobo in his twenties, enters a home where it appears that a man is eating breakfast at the dining room table. He begs for food, assuring the man that he is willing to work for it. The silent film’s silence effortlessly suggests that the boy’s pleas are falling on deaf ears. When he moves in closer to the man from whom he is begging food, Jim discovers that the man, slumped over, has in fact been shot to death. The boy must get out of there; only, just at that moment a teenaged girl comes down the stairs. He protests his innocence of the crime; how can he possibly convince the girl? He doesn’t have to; Nancy confesses that it is she who shot her adoptive father moments earlier when he attempted to rape her. The flashback of the whole event, studded with superimpositions, stuns. The two team up and head for Canada, with the authorities at their heels. The opening image, a closeup of Jim’s legs walking and walking, is replaced by shots of Jim’s and Nancy’s legs walking side by side.
     Train tracks constitute one motif; the interiors of cars of hopped trains, another—although realism takes a hit by the absence of any sign or sense, and of course sound, of locomotion in these interior shots. (Occasionally, an exterior shot of a moving train is inserted.) Passing from sepia to black and white, the film explains its title as Jim and Nancy approach sleep—again, side by side, for Jim has become Nancy’s protector—with a wonderful point-of-view shot of a field of haystacks underneath a full moon. (The gorgeous cinematography is by Henry Gerrard.) Jim: “Ain’t it funny when you think of the millions of people in warm houses and feather beds, an’ us just driftin’ ’round like the clouds? . . . Even the people in feather beds[, however,] ain’t satisfied. [W]e’re all beggars of life.” Poignant: how modest are Nancy’s dreams—how little she begs of life.
     Wellman’s film anticipates his own Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941), especially since Nancy-on-the-lam dresses up as a boy, whom Jim introduces as his kid brother. (Ah, but will that ample lip rouge of hers give her away?) There is also a trial among the hobos, devised by bully Oklahoma Red, who wants Nancy for his own, that may have influenced the underground/underworld trial in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). Regardless, it is certainly the case that it needles the extent to which U.S. justice is biased against the poor and the helpless: Red ignorantly refers to himself as the “persecutin’ attorney” and, not intending the word with, declares, “The court will dispense with justice.” The script by Benjamin Glazer is from a story by Jim Tully.
     Richard Arlen is adequate as Jim, Wallace Beery less than adequate as Oklahoma Red, and, in her last appearance in a Hollywood film, Louise Brooks is luminous as Nancy.

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