Saturday, January 6, 2018

Lulu Watch: Beggars of Life (1928)

Watched:  01-05-2018
Format:  Austin Film Society
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1920's

I haven't really seen all that many Louise Brooks, Wallace Beery or William Wellman movies.  To be honest, I remember stumbling across Louise Brooks way back in film school and finding her... appealing.  

As college closed out, The Louise Brooks Society sprang to life online.  The website is still going strong, does a great job with social media, and is remarkably non-obnoxious for a website devoted more or less to one topic.  Because I follow them on fb, I saw that the Austin Film Society was showing the movie at their theater (which I'd never been to, at least since it quit being a standard movie theater where I saw Blade, Jurassic Park 2 and any number of movies from 1993-2002, as well as seeing Planes, Trains and Automobiles there on opening weekend.)  

Beggars of Life (1928) hasn't really been available except in some sketchy DVD version with very bad reviews, but was recently restored and released to BluRay.  It's from the end of the silent era, directed by William Wellman (who had directed Wings just two films prior) and has Wallace Beery as the marquee name.  Frankly, the 1920's are in no way my sweet spot for film history, so I can't pretend to have much knowledge about most of the talent involved without admitting to doing some Googling prior to starting on this post.  Some of what I learned was that this film had, upon release, portions which included synchronized sound (The Jazz Singer and Steamboat Willie are of the same vintage).  Unfortunately, any copies of the film with sound have been lost, leaving only the silent version.

The story is a reminder of what film could be like in Pre-Code Hollywood.  The entire plot of the film centers around sexual assault, as "The Boy", hoboing his way across the country, comes upon a farm house to ask for breakfast and finds the farmer dead inside, shot in the head.  He finds a girl (Brooks) dressing in the man's clothes, just about to escape.  In what's a stunningly well-realized scene, we learn that the farmer adopted Brooks, but he's been harassing her near daily, and that morning, he was attempting to rape her when she seized the household rifle and killed the farmer.  

The Boy knows she'll hang for this, and the two take off, hitting the rails.  Eventually they come upon another hobo camp, meet Wallace Beery (as Oklahoma Red) and Brooks, who never, for one second passes as a male despite her wardrobe, is discovered to be a girl.  From there on out, a good chunk of the movie is mostly about keeping Brooks from rape at the hands of hobos.  

That Beery's brutish Oklahoma Red is redeemed before the end of the film is going to make modern audiences uncomfortable, and there's no real "but..." here, other than to say, it's an interesting take to see a would-be and likely past-rapist turn over a new leaf in the course of a film.  

It's actually a beautifully shot movie, and seeing it on the big screen was a reminder of the work already happening in the 1920's as tradesmen gave way to craftsmen and film was finding its visual vocabulary.  It isn't quite yet The Magnificent Ambersons when it comes to camerawork, but Wellman's team was already finding amazing shots and building suspense, giving mood to the film through strong lighting choices (they actually shot night-for-night) and portraying the wide-open landscape as both free and maybe a bit scary in its endless openness.  Not to mention remarkable work with moving trains and more.

Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen, plus additional hobos

None of the actors in the film are now well-remembered.  Despite once raking in top pay and top billing, with a name still kicked around a bit, Beery is mostly forgotten.   Brooksie became more of a still-image icon that folks recognize as "flapper", but mostly folks don't associate her image with a person, actor or specific film.  Despite both Beery and Arlen having careers that actually did bridge well into the talkies, neither actor has received Hollywood immortality as household names.  Which is too bad, because everyone in this film is pretty rock solid.  

Despite the fact I've been on the hunt for this movie for a couple decades, I didn't have any particular expectations.  I'd read a synopsis some time back that had clued me into the plot, but it's hard to know how you'll actually take a movie.  I'll be honest, it's been quite some time since I'd seen a silent picture on anything but a television, and it's just a much better experience.  It makes you think maybe Norma Desmond had a point.  The movie was a terrific experience, and it was a great pleasure to watch Brooks on the big screen, 90 years after this film first screened.

who knew "The Hobo Look" would make so much sense?

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