The first time Fiona and I saw William Wellman’s BEGGARS OF LIFE was on a VHS grey-market tape bought off eBay for something excessive like $9, with a wildly inappropriate drop-needle soundtrack and a picture quality equivalent to the viewpoint of a near-sighted mollusc in tears at the heat death of the universe.

The second time was at the Bo’ness Hippodrome, Scotland’s oldest purpose-built cinema (1912-present) as part of the Festival of Silent Cinema (AKA HippFest) with a 35mm print from the George Eastman House — the best surviving materials anywhere — and Neil Brand playing at the piano with the Dodge Brothers (featuring critic Mark Kermode) collaborating on a skiffle/jug band/spasm music live score of surpassing loveliness, dynamism and romanticism. It makes a difference! I now suspect that old Wild Bill may have been right to rate this as his best movie (I think he went to his grave believing it lost). One weird effect of seeing it on the big screen is that details that registered on my mind’s eye as looming closeups turn out to be spacious medium shots when I looked at my video copy at home. I feel like a cine-illiterate child when I compare the large screen impression with the small-screen “reality.”


Louise Brooks plays an orphan runaway who’s shot her would-be rapist and is now a fugitive. It’s the high point of her Hollywood career, though not one she enjoyed — Wellman was horrible to her, as was her co-star Richard Arlen, although at least he apologised decades later. Arlen is pretty good here, not too pretty (WINGS) nor too ugly (ISLAND OF LOST SOULS) — he lost his looks FAST, that one, and his face just went kind of ugh. There’s a secene early on when, starving, he presses his nose against a screen door. That’s just what he would look like a few years later.

(You see what happens when you say Louise’s eyes are too close together, Arlen?)

Brooks is delightful, touching, intense, but the stand-out acting performance is from Wallace Beery as Oklahoma Red, he-man of Hobohemia, a rail-riding, hooch-swigging killer who slowly and, it has to be said, inexplicably, morphs into the film’s hero. It’s a showy role, yet Beery is surprisingly delicate in it, despite the fact that each of his facial features must be the weight of a seal cub  — it’s subtle work, by his standards. When he’s not exerting swaggering, pugilistic menace, he eschews his later MGM schtick — slobbering mawkishness — and manages a wistful, thoughtful, wonderful quality that seems to defy gravity. I think part of it stems from Wellman’s willingness to stay wide, but part is certainly a very well-judged bit of performance from Beery, a man who was certainly capable of stinking up even an extreme long-shot with his mugging and gurning.

The film has crazy moments. Brooks is identified as a girl when she bends over. I won’t show you what that looks like, but this is the reaction it gets.


I have never seen a dragged-up girl rumbled by her ass before. I mean, a lot of movie stars have exposed their bottoms, but not many bottoms have exposed movie stars.

The same hobo prepares for a knock-down fight with Beery by deftly flipping his upper dentures from his mouth and pocketing them for safety.

The hobo gang at one point stage a kangaroo court, almost as surreal a mockery of justice as the one in King Lear or the one in Alice in Wonderland.

Roscoe Karns makes his trademark Roscoe Karns face. Blue Washington as Black Mose has a role that actually affords some character and some dignity, but is encouraged to tom it up with some uncomfortable “comedy negro” business.

And the locomotive stunts are reckless and scary. Beery apparently insisted on NOT doing all his own stunts — “Listen, all directors want to kill actors,” he told Brooks — but still hangs from moving rail cars. Apparently nobody considered that a stunt in those days. Brooks herself leaps on and off moving trains, and falls off one too. Those machines are dangerous! Apparently one wreck from this movie is still in place, at the bottom of a hill in Southern California, near the Mexican border. Another wreck from the movie, Wallace Beery, is still in place at Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale.

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8 Responses to “Hobo’ness”

  1. David Boxwell Says:

    His redux, WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (33) also has a girl hobo (Dorothy Coonan) who dresses as a boy. And Wellman married her!

  2. David Boxwell Says:

    Preston Sturges also had a hobo girl fetish (SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS).

  3. Vanwall Green Says:

    Saw it much as you first time, then years later at of all places, the San Diego Model Train Museum, which had a special showing of one of the better tape transfers back then in celebration of a San Diego Film Connections event going on in the local Balboa Park, Just outside the tiny theater room was the railroad club’s model of the Goat Canyon Trestle where parts of this film were shot on the Carrizo Gorge railway. The San Diego History Museum had a bunch of behind the scenes photos of this film, and a nice write-up. I visited the trestle and walked some of the tracks a number of years ago, not sure if I was supposed to be there, but what the heck. Impressive views down-canyons, and Beery was right, it would’ve been very easy to get killed there. The railroad used to roll so slowly on parts of it, you could trot and jump on, I understand, and many did, usually jumping off with stolen freight. I also visited the Jacumba Hotel where most of the crew stayed, it was a local bootlegger’s joint and they stayed well-lubricated. Louise Brooks had her famous one-night-stand with a heartless stuntman, who embarrassed her the next morning in front of the rest of crew. Beery did stay there, tho, he flew his private plane in. Arlen was adequate, and Louise was affecting, but, yeah, Beery was overpowering, and surprisingly heroic. Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams has a cherse part, dumping Louise and Dick on their butts in a scene that should’ve underlined Beery’s advice to her about some directors’ casual cruelties.

  4. The stuntman was Harvey Parry, who doubled Harold Lloyd climbing skyscrapers and can be seen waxing poetic in the ace documentary series Hollywood. You’d never figure him for a love rat.

    Veronica Lake did her own stunts on Sullivan’s Travels too, falling out of trains. And she was pregnant!

  5. Vanwall Green Says:

    I’m always reminded of Beery’s warning when I watch Tatiana Samoilova run between the rolling T-34 tanks in “The Cranes Are Flying” – a holy crap moment, there were a few in BOL, for sure.

  6. At HippFest on Wednesday night Kevin Brownlow was asked about the possibility of a DVD release of his HOLLYWOOD series. Apparently he is struggling with the price being asked by the studios for the rights to their films.

  7. This has been a problem for Hollywood since the invention of home video, I fear. In a sane world, the studios would band together and bankroll the release, instead of charging money for it.

    The rights for the clips in Natan and the money involved is too depressing a situation to get into. Basically a lot of docs that use clips can become legally unshowable within a few years of production.

  8. […] Cairns posted this fine review of Beggars of Life on his blog Shadowplay and also had fun spotting tartan in every film on […]

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