Thursday, September 10, 2015

William Wellman blogathon: An appreciation of Beggars of Life

William Wellman (far left) and Wallace Beery (far right) during the making of Beggars of Life (1928)
Directed by William Wellman the year after he made Wings (the first film to win an Academy Award), Beggars of Life (1928) is a gripping drama about a girl (Louise Brooks) dressed as a boy who flees the law after killing her abusive stepfather. On the run, she rides the rails through a male dominated hobo underworld in which danger is close at hand. Picture Play magazine described the film as "Sordid, grim and unpleasant," adding, "it is nevertheless interesting and is certainly a departure from the usual movie."

Beggars of Life is based on the 1924 novelistic memoir of the same name by Jim Tully, a once celebrated "hobo author" whose own reputation is also on the rise. Kent State University Press in Kent, Ohio (Tully's one-time hometown) has in recent years reissued the author's books, including Beggars of Life -- his best remembered work. They have also recently published an excellent biography of the author called Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler.

Author Jim Tully and actors Louise Brooks, Wallace Beery and Richard Arlen, during the making of Beggars of Life.

Though shot as a silent and released in that format, Beggars of Life also has the distinction of being considered Paramount's first sound film: a synchronized musical score, sound effects, and a song were added (against the director's wishes) at the time of its release. Early advertisements for the 1928 film boasted "Come hear Wallace Beery sing!" The gravel-voiced character actor and future Oscar winner plays Oklahoma Red, a tough hobo with a soft heart. Richard Arlen, who the year before had starred in Wings, plays a vagabond and Brooks' romantic interest.

Beggars of Life is a film about the desperate and the downtrodden. And in some ways, it anticipates films made during the Depression, which was just a few years off. Among them is Wellman's own 1933 effort Wild Boys of the Road, whose premise echoes that of Beggars of Life.

In 1928, Beggars of Life was named one of the six best films for October by the Chicago Tribune, and, it made the honor roll for best films of the year in an annual poll conducted by Film Daily. (On the basis of Beggars of Life and Wings, Film Daily named Wellman one of the world's best directors for the year's 1928-1929.) Musical Courier called Beggars of Life " . . . one of the most entertaining films of the littered season.” Photoplay thought it "good entertainment." Nevertheless, it is not especially well known today, and its grim story set among tramps drew mixed reviews upon release. One Baltimore newspaper said it would have limited appeal, quipping, "Tully tale not a flapper fetcher for the daytime trade."

Louella Parsons, writing in the Los Angeles Examiner, echoed the sentiment when she stated, "I was a little disappointed in Louise Brooks. She is so much more the modern flapper type, the Ziegfeld Follies girl, who wears clothes and is always gay and flippant. This girl is somber, worried to distraction and in no comedy mood. Miss Brooks is infinitely better when she has her lighter moments." Her cross-town colleague, Harrison Carroll, added to the drumbeat of disdain when he wrote in the Los Angeles Evening Herald, "Considered from a moral standpoint, Beggars of Life is questionable, for it throws the glamour of adventure over tramp life and is occupied with building sympathy for an escaping murderess. As entertainment, however, it has tenseness and rugged earthy humor."

Critics in New York were also divided on the merits of Beggars of Life, and many of them instead focused on Brooks' unconventional, cross-dressing role. In the New York Times, Mordaunt Hall noted, "Louise Brooks figures as Nancy. She is seen for the greater part of this subject in male attire, having decided to wear these clothes to avoid being apprehended. Miss Brooks really acts well, better than she has in most of her other pictures."

The New York Morning Telegraph stated, "Louise Brooks, in a complete departure from the pert flapper that it has been her wont to portray, here definitely places herself on the map as a fine actress. Her characterizations, drawn with the utmost simplicity, is genuinely affecting." While Quinn Martin of the New York World wrote, "Here we have Louise Brooks, that handsome brunette, playing the part of a fugitive from justice, and playing as if she meant it, and with a certain impressive authority and manner. This is the best acting this remarkable young woman has done."

Also getting attention for their role in Beggars of Life was Edgar “Blue” Washington, who played Black Mose. Washington (1898 – 1970) was a prizefighter and noted semi-pro baseball player before entering films in the late Teens. He was a pioneer among African-American actor, and was given the nickname “Blue” by friend Frank Capra. Washington’s career was of interest to the Negro press. The Afro-American newspaper wrote, “In Beggars of Life, Edgar Blue Washington, race star, was signed by Paramount for what is regarded as the most important Negro screen role of the year, that of Big Mose. The part is that of a sympathetic character, hardly less important to the epic of tramp life than those of Wallace Beery, Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen, who head the cast.”

Girls dressed as boys, pastoral life gone wrong, the mingling of the races, desperation depicted among the glitz and glamour of the twenties -- there is a lot of friction in Beggars of Life. It's a more than worthwhile film and one well worth watching.

Until a few years ago, when the George Eastman House optically enlarged its 16mm print (once belonging to William Everson) to 35mm, Beggars of Life had been seldom screened and seldom seen. That will change next year.

Wellman was one of the great directors -- and he made a lot of great movies; among them Wings (1927), The Public Enemy (1931), A Star is Born (1937), Beau Geste (1939), Roxie Hart (1942), The Ox Bow Incident (1943), and Battleground (1949).

Actor and author William Wellman Jr., who has recently completed a biography of his father titled Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel, told the Louise Brooks Society, "Beggars of Life was one of my Father's favorite silent films. He loved it. He talked about it a great deal with appreciation and GUSTO."

Please nominate the the 1928 film BEGGARS OF LIFE to the 2016 National Film Registry. It's easy. All you have to do is send an email to

Oh, and don't forget to nominate the 1928 film BEGGARS OF LIFE to the 2016 National Film Registry. All you have to do is send an email to

Really. If you haven't already, please nominate the the 1928 film BEGGARS OF LIFE to the 2016 National Film Registry. It's easy. All you have to do is send an email to

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