Saturday, September 12, 2015

William Wellman blogathon: The sounds of silents, Beggars of Life

William Wellman's 1928 film, Beggars of Life, is considered Paramount's first sound film. Though shot as a silent (and released to some markets in that format), a synchronized musical score, sound effects, a few lines of dialogue, and a song sung by Wallace Berry were added to prints of the film --  against the director's wishes.

The film stars Beery as Oklahoma Red, Louise Brooks as The Girl (Nancy), and Richard Arlen as The Boy (Jim). Beggars of Life was named one of the six best films for October by the Chicago Tribune; it also made the honor roll for best films of the year in an annual poll conducted by Film Daily. Musical Courier called Beggars of Life ” . . . one of the most entertaining films of the littered season.” And Photoplay thought it “good entertainment.”

Beggars of Life was well regarded, as was Wellman's earlier effort, Wings. On the basis of those two films, Film Daily named Wellman one of the world's best directors for the year's 1928-1929. Each was adapted for sound, as the rare newspaper advertisement below indicates. The two films were showing in Buffalo, New York at the same time.

Though the sound elements for the film are lost, newspaper articles and advertisements of the time tell us a little about the nature of Beggars of Life. Commenting on its New York City premiere, Women's Wear Daily noted "All of these stars outdo themselves in this picture. Wallace Beery talks in this picture, sings a hobo song and ends with an observation about jungle rats in general." The New Yorker commented on "the synchronized accompaniment of sentimental music."

Elsewhere, the New Orleans Item observed, "Vitaphone helps the story along with music that is fitting and well arranged. The 'Hallelujah I'm a Bum' rhythm helps the story's speed." Peggy Patton of the Wisconsin News wrote "Wallace Beery, Richard Arlen (also playing in Wings) and Louise Brooks play the featured roles. All do praiseworthy work. By the way it is a sound picture and Wallace Beery speaks a few lines and sings a song. His speaking voice is splendid." Frank Aston of the Cincinnati Post penned, "The direction is admirable. Vitaphonic sounds lend some extra force. Beery is heard singing." The San Diego Union added, "Accompanied by a synchronized musical score of more than average excellence, the picture provides an hour and a half of film entertainment radically out of line with the general run of cinema drama. It is pungent, powerful, appealing, masterfully directed and superbly acted."

Advertisements for the film proclaimed something along the lines of “Come hear Wallace Beery sing!” But what that song was is uncertain. Reliable sources, including the director's son, site one of two similar titles, “Hark the Bells” or “Don’t You Hear Them Bells?” While at least two newspaper advertisements for the film, including the NYC one above, mention the songs "I Wonder Where She Sits at Night" and "Beggars of Life."

At the time of the film's release, a few recordings of the J. Keirn Brennan and Karl Hajos song “Beggars of Life” were released. The label on some of those 78 rpm recordings describe it as the “Theme Song of the Motion Picture production.” One was by The Troubadours (with male quartet), another by Scrappy Lambert. Here is the Troubadours' recording. It was issued as Victor 21683-B in 1928.

The lyrics to "Beggars of Life" go this way:

"Beggars of life, beggars of life;
Gypsy hearts that are sighing
For skies of blue, sunlight and dew,
Out where swallows are flying.
Each one longing to be led
To a happy homestead,
Where love will cry,
'Don't pass me by!'
Beggars of life, come home!"

Below is the Scrappy Lambert recording. Lambert (1901 – 1987) was an American dance band vocalist who appeared on hundreds of recordings from the 1920s through the 1940s. Might his or The Troubadours recording have been appended to the film, the so-called "sentimental music" referenced by the New Yorker?

There was also a cylinder recording of "Beggars of Life" released at the time. A copy of this  recording, housed in a rectangular box and with a paper label, is in the archive of the Louise Brooks Society. However, it being a cylinder recording, the LBS doesn't have a way to play and record it.
To conclude, here is more vintage recording, a cover version on 78 rpm, dating from 1928. It is the Bar Harbor Society Orchestra featuring vocals by Irving Kaufman.

While discussing the use of sound in Beggars of Life, it's worth mentioning that it was during the making of this transitional film that the "boom mic" was perhaps first used. According to David O. Selznick, "I was also present on the stage when a microphone was moved for the first time by Wellman, believe it or not. Sound was relatively new [this was Beggars of Life, 1928] and at that time the sound engineer insisted that the microphone be steady. Wellman, who had quite a temper in those days, got very angry, took the microphone himself, hung it on a boom, gave orders to record--and moved it." In the annals of film history, others have been credited with moving a microphone during the production of a film. Selznick's anecdote, which comes from Kevin Brownlow's The Parade's Gone By, is one account.

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