Beggars of Life (1928)

Beggars of Life (1928), directed by William A. Wellman.

A young hobo stops at a farm house hoping for breakfast. He finds the owner sitting at the table with a bullet hole in his head. A young woman dressed in men's clothing is trying to escape just then and she confesses to him: "Yes, I killed him. He adopted me from the orphanage and always had his hands on me. This morning it was too much and I had to do it".

They hit the road together (foreshadowing It Happened One Night (1934) and Sullivan's Travels (1941)) and finally arrive at a hobo camp (a "jungle"). The men are a tough, dirty and debased lot. Seeing through her disguise the sexual menaces are immediate, blunt and very serious. It is a truly frightening prospect, going on for a long time.

Two against many: can they survive?

The summary makes it sound like another Wellman film, Safe in Hell (1931): a woman fleeing a murder, not safe from the men around her, the one good guy in her life unable to defend her.

This was not much liked at the time: too dark, too serious. People wanted Louise Brooks in light dancing roles. Her weightier German pictures -- Pandora's Box (1929), Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) -- came the next year.

Good performances all around, but Wallace Beery as the boss hobo "Oklahoma Red" is a standout. Brooks -- who criticized every aspect of the production, including her own work -- called his acting a "small masterpiece". Silent films sometimes don't have subtle acting, but that large face of his is so expressive that we actually see his thoughts without being aware of any mugging.

We want to think his bullying character has a heart of gold, but that doesn't come out until the last act.

Another sighting: Edgar "Blue" Washington, a black baseball player, policeman and actor with a long career, almost always uncredited. Here he has a significant role as a hobo caring for a feverish white man and later as part of the conspiracy to help the young couple get away. In between he has to do some comical eye-rolling expressions.

Shot on location during hot weather near the California/Mexico border. Those are real trains and the actors do many of their own dangerous-looking stunts. In an exciting sequence reminiscent of Keaton's The General (1926) they send a burning locomotive off the tracks and down a hillside.

A partial-sound version was made and distributed but that has been lost. It is said that Wellman invented the boom microphone for the sound version.

In her great collection of essays Lulu in Hollywood, Brooks has a chapter on this film, "On Location with Billy Wellman":


We fell in love with Locomotive 102 on the first morning, when she gave two long and two short blasts on her steam whistle to call us to work from breakfast in the lunchroom. Indulgent, she let us ride all over the train -- astride the cow catcher, in the engine cab, atop boxcars, inside gondolas, and on flatcars. I chose to ride in the caboose, with its cozy bunks and fat little black stove, which glowed red in the cold mountain nights. When everyone was accounted for by the assistant director, and after a warning ring of her bell, away Locomotive 102 skipped -- up the canyons on the hour's trip to Carrizo Gorge, the central point from which we operated. If work finished at sunset, she returned to town in a frolicking mood, with clanging bell and blasting whistle. If work finished at night, she coasted to town on the breeze, with all of us lying out on the flatcars, looking up at the stars shimmering in the black sky.

Available on Blu-ray from Kino. This is from the best surviving source and is of rough quality, but is quite watchable given the age and considering it was lost for many years. It has the vignetting on the edges and in the corners often found in silent film.

The new chamber music score uses some selections from the original. It quotes the old silent music without wearying us the way those scores would sometimes do.

Two commentary tracks:

The director's son has many stories about his father and the making of this film. Of Wellman's 20 silents this was his favorite, even more than Wings (1927) which was a difficult production in many dimensions.

Another track is by the director of the Louise Brooks Society and author of a book on the film. He says Wellman wanted Brooks back for the Jean Harlow role in The Public Enemy (1931) but she wanted to be done with Hollywood by then.