Saturday, February 14, 2015

Louise Brooks included in new documentary on Beggars of Life author Jim Tully

Jim Tully is a writer whose reputation is on the rise. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, his "extraordinary life story has long been a movie waiting to be made."

Over the last few years, this once famous "Hobo author" has been celebrated with the publication of a definitive biography, a string of newspaper and magazine articles, reissues of his out-of-print bestsellers, screenings of movies based on his books, and the recent DVD release of Beggars of Life (1928), an acclaimed silent film based on Tully's best known work.

In 2012 there was "Tullyfest", a series of exhibits, lectures, talks, screenings, and walking tours held in-and-around Hollywood, the author's one-time home. The event, which marked the 100th anniversary of Tully's arrival in Los Angeles, also saw the publication of The Dozen and One: A Field Guide to the Books of Jim Tully, by Howard Prouty of ReadersInk in Los Angeles.

Now comes Road Kid to Writer - The Tracks of Jim Tully, a new documentary by Mark Wade Stone and StoryWorks.TV which airs February 15th on PBS in Ohio. At 50 minutes, it packs a punch, and should go a long way toward reestablishing the author as one of the significant American personalities of the 1920's.

As this new documentary shows, Jim Tully (1886-1947) was a larger-than-life character: stocky, short, and with a tussle of red hair, this rough and tumble writer was hard to miss either in person or on the printed page.

The son of an impoverished Irish immigrant ditch-digger, Tully fled the orphanage where he had been placed following the death of his mother and spent most of his teenage years in the company of the American underclass. Drifting across the country as a "road kid," Tully rode the rails, sleeping in hobo camps, begging meals at back doors, and haunting public libraries wherever he went. It was a hardscrabble life.

Weary of wandering after six years, Tully jumped off a railroad car in Ohio with dreams of becoming a writer. He published a few poems, and supported himself working as a newspaper reporter, professional boxer, chain maker, and tree surgeon. These early experiences would shape his future books.

Tully moved to Hollywood in 1912, and there started work on his first work, Emmett Lawler. (Originally composed as a single paragraph 100,000 word novel--it took a decade to complete). Tully also fell in with a crowd of artistically inclined up-and-comers. His growing circle of friends included the likes of Lon Chaney, Tom Mix, Erich von Stroheim, Boris Karloff, and others. Another early friend was director Paul Bern, who insisted Tully meet another "little tramp" by the name of Charlie Chaplin. Tully went to work for Chaplin as ghostwriter, publicist and creative factotum.

Jim Tully is center, to the left of Charlie Chaplin. Louise Brooks' future husband,
 Eddie Sutherland is second from the right.
After a year-and-a-half in Chaplin's employ, Tully began to turn-out a stream of critically acclaimed books about his road years, including Beggars of Life (a major bestseller), Circus Parade, Blood on the Moon, Shadows of Men, and Shanty Irish. Tully was quickly established as a major American author, and he used his status to launch a parallel career as a Hollywood journalist, writing for Vanity Fair, Photoplay and other leading magazines. Much as his gritty books shocked readers, his truth-be-told magazine articles on the movies rocked Hollywood. One, about matinee idol John Gilbert, even led to a headline-making fistfight.

While some of Tully's more gritty books ran afoul of the censors (one was banned in Boston), they also garnered critical acclaim and considerable commercial success. A couple were filmed, and a couple were turned into successful stage plays. H.L. Mencken, his editor at The American Mercury, was a longtime champion. Screenwriter Rupert Hughes, another promoter of Tully's work, wrote that this singular author had "fathered the school of hard-boiled writing so zealously cultivated by Ernest Hemingway and lesser luminaries."

Richard Arlen, Louise Brooks and Jim Tully on the set of Beggars of Life
Road Kid to Writer - The Tracks of Jim Tully tells a remarkable story. Always in the thick of things, the author's equally remarkable array of friends and associates include W. C. Fields, Wallace Beery, Eddie Sutherland, and Frank Capra. He also crossed paths with Jack London, James Joyce, Jimmy Cagney, Joe Louis, Amelia Earhart, Louis B. Mayer, George Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells. All are glimpsed in Road Kid to Writer, a revelatory documentary deserving a broader, even national audience. The Youngstown Vindicator newspaper in Ohio wrote up the broadcast a few days ago.

Louise Brooks and Jim Tully didn't like one another, but that shouldn't stop you from watching this worthwhile film. Road Kid to Writer - The Tracks of Jim Tully premieres on Western Reserve PBS (WNEO Channel 45.1 / WEAO Channel 49.1) on Sunday, February 15 at 7 p.m. Additional airdates can be found at

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