Bright Lights Film Journal

Boxcars, Beery, and a Dutch Bob: William Wellman’s Beggars of Life (1928) on Blu-ray

Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen

What we see in Brooks and Beery on the screen is a mixup of the actors’ hardwired personalities and those contrived for their roles, but this is the sort of confusion we expect from movie stars, and, when projected as powerfully as these two do, the kind that used to – still does? – energize the experience of watching a movie.

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It’s easy to get excited over Kino Lorber’s recent blu-ray release of William Wellman’s 1928 silent, Beggars of Life. For devotees of Louise Brooks, the film holds legendary status as her best American film; after completing one more film for Paramount, The Canary Murder Case (1928), Brooks, fed up with her treatment at the studio (or perhaps out of sheer hardwired crankiness), abruptly left for Germany and G.W. Pabst. But outside of some rare screenings, who these days has actually ever seen Wellman’s film? Or seen it as it should be seen?

Until now, Beggars of Life has been available on disc solely as nearly unwatchable DVD-Rs, sourced from 16mm reduction prints. Kino’s high-def release, transferred from 35mm elements held by The George Eastman Museum, is a massive visual improvement over those earlier, feral DVD releases, and, in addition, comes blessed with an elegant music score by the inestimable Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, on which I’ll further remark later.

Other than the tighter resolution, the greater detail and fine tonal scale – and the now fully realized visuals of Louise’s face – what caught my attention this time around was Wallace Beery. Once he entered nearly midway into the picture, it struck me that this is Beery’s show as much as it is Louise’s, however much Brooks and co-star Richard Arlen set the plot in motion. Indeed, the repro of the vintage poster that fronts the blu-ray’s case (above) gives Beery top billing above Arlen and Brooks, although a graphic image of Louise’s androgenic hobo getup supplies the visual.

(spoilers ahead)

In the brisk, deftly directed opening scenes, Arlen’s character, a young tramp we’ll know only as Jim, knocks at a farmhouse door for a handout, only to find within a seated corpse hovering over his still steaming steak and egg breakfast. A girl emerges, who recounts how, in the midst of a sexual assault by her foster father, she grabbed a rifle and shot him through the head. Brooks, as Nancy, stands immobilized (with shock? with unexpected gratification?) while Jim considers his options. Nancy’s already dressed for escape, having donned a male ensemble of jacket and trousers and carrying a newsboy flat cap that might hide her bob and bangs. Seeing that Nancy could pass as a teenage boy tramp, Jim’s instinct is to help her out. Whereupon she and Jim hit the rails together.

The first quarter of the film, much of it shot on location, including an evocative stretch of deserted rail-line, does belong to Brooks, who skillfully underplays the vulnerability of a young woman caught between being (understandingly) wary of the motives behind this unknown male’s spur-of-the-moment display of kindness and her need to trust the goodness she senses in him.

Arlen and Brooks

All the same, her Nancy is no doe-eyed innocent. If he wasn’t something of an innocent himself, Jim might consider her dangerous. If they ever do catch up with her, the police would probably ask her why, when attacked by the old man, she didn’t simply take flight and seek help, instead of reaching for a rifle and shooting him dead. But with Nancy having announced that this had not been his first carnal assault, we – watching the film in the era of Weinstein, Ailes, Cosby, and Trump – are, like Jim, on her side. Furthermore, it seems plausible that Nancy, just by being played by Brooks, might have said to herself previously, “the next time he tries it I’ll kill him.” After all, as 21st-century viewers, we’ve seen her as death angel Lulu in Pandora’s Box (1929).

But the outdoor sequences are relaxed and idyllic, with the two of them tramping on foot after being tossed from a freight train by a railroad goon. Between them there’s a fragile, temporary “hallelujah I’m a bum” feeling as Jim’s hobo knowhow sorts out survival tactics – including, in a moment of dissonance, hiding a wanted-for-murder poster, featuring Brooks’ iconic visage, Jim finds tacked to a tree. As night descends, Jim – drawing from experience – leads Nancy into a field where the two can bed down in a haystack.

Necessarily the haystack provides tight quarters, and once again Brooks, lying sardine-can intimate next to Jim, projects an unease at the physical closeness that modulates into a relaxed recognition of Jim’s inner rectitude. For the film’s entire running time, Brooks’ character is defined by anticipating and dodging the threat of rape, yet with no moralizing intertitles (of the sort Griffith, say, would deem necessary), the film implicitly grants that Nancy’s murder of her foster father is a justified response to his abuse of her. Was a premise like this only possible in the pre-Code days?1

By falling asleep in the hay while keeping his hands to himself, Jim passes his chivalric test with flying colors, but the following night, wandering into a hobo camp in search of food, they encounter a pocket of seething testosterone seated around the campfire. Sexual peril returns, and, soon enough, in a realistically gender-specific and ungallant manner, Nancy’s cover is blown. As she bends over the boiling stewpot, a rangy character tagged The Arkansas Snake (Robert Perry) discerns a female backside filling out the trousers. It’s a surprising moment of coarseness in this 90-year-old film but at the same time a reminder of what the movies could get away with pre-Code; it would be decades, I’m guessing, before you’d see a male character so brazenly grasp (if only visually) a female butt, particularly in the buns-up position Louise offers here.

Now Nancy is up for carnal grabs to the alpha male in the group, which appears to be The Arkansas Snake. Until, that is, Wallace Beery appears. As the über-hobo Oklahoma Red, Beery emerges from the dark singing a bawdy song with a barrel of hooch hoisted on his shoulder, brusquely shoving aside anybody in his way.

Wallace Beery

In a career that lasted some 36 years, the exceptionally talented Beery, sporting a large burly frame and the swollen face of a debauched roustabout (he began his showbiz career in the circus at age 16), might have seemed destined to remain a minor character actor or comic foil, yet by the late twenties, the time of Beggars, he’d become a headliner and box office draw. Still a character actor, but a larger-than-life one, the thirties would bring him prime leading roles in films like Dinner at Eight (1933), Viva Villa (1934), and perhaps most memorably Treasure Island (1934), after which he owned the role of Long John Silver until Robert Newton arrived to give him some competition in Disney’s 1950 adaptation of the same title.

Given his tough guy persona, Beery’s macho stance in any given film was most often defanged by its being dimwitted, bleary, and comic, as in Min and Bill (1930). Even in dramatic roles, Beery’s part was nearly always leavened by comedy, and there’s a bit of that in Beggars, particularly in a somewhat laborious mock trial sequence midway through the film. More central to the film’s themes and Beery’s unique talents is the moment near the denouement, when, on a dime, Oklahoma Red’s bestial character makes a 180-degree turn toward human decency. It’s the essence of many Beery roles – that behind all the posturing and maybe an inclination toward violence (that here includes rape), the big lug has a good heart. Beery can pull off this sleight of hand better than any actor in cinema history, and in Beggars he offers a virtuosic display of it.2

Beery and Brooks

Until then, Beery’s mere presence – he looms over the rest of the hobos and renders Louise tiny and pitiably open to assault – exudes a barely contained libidinous menace, and he wastes no time in claiming Nancy as his sex slave. Tension ratchets up as the whole group of them hop a freight train’s boxcar. When things turn ugly between Red and Jim, Nancy resourcefully engineers a competition between the two over the rights to her body.

By setting the two bulls against each other, Nancy flips her position from female victim to canny survivor. The stratagem also provides a neat reversal of gender expectations: at this juncture Jim is in the most immediate peril, and it’s Nancy who swings into action, exerts control, and becomes the rescuer. Thereafter, Jim effectively loses his position as knight errant for the rest of the film.

Jim and Nancy recede into a corner, and a prolonged fistfight ensues – with nearly everybody joining in – until, amidst the mayhem, a sentry sounds the alarm that cops have boarded the train and are searching it while it remains in motion at 40 mph.

In a nicely calibrated action sequence, Oklahoma Red enables the hobos’ escape by uncoupling the back half of the train, which takes their boxcar downhill onto a sidetrack and far from the frustrated police. Most of the men scatter, but a small detachment, including Jim and Nancy, take shelter in an abandoned cabin where Red, once he steals a motorcar and joins them, has his opportunity for redemption.

Along with the car, Red has brought a plan to get Nancy out of her gender dilemma. Since the cops are looking for a murderess in men’s clothes. he means to switch her disguise to the distaff, leaving Jim in the lurch and the girl with him. Sportingly, he’s snagged an indisputably female getup from a local clothesline. Dressing the film’s heretofore androgynous Brooks in an antiquated, and decidedly unfashionable, farm girl costume – complete with sunbonnet – is a catalytic moment for the film – and for us, so many decades later.

Ad for the film, September 1928, Cincinnati’s Capitol Theatre3

By 1928, whether widely recognized or not, it was all there, that Brooksian air of non-submissive, yet eager to wield, sexuality, and I’d like to think Wellman could see it when he had Beery, sporting a knowing leer, hands the dress to her. After Red and Jim walk outside the cabin to argue briefly over who gets the girl, they head back inside to find Nancy standing rigid and doll-like in the stolen duds. There’s a long moment while both men – and we – appraise the result. What do Jim and Red think of the transformation? It’s clear Jim likes what he sees; perhaps a future wife feeding the chickens down on the farm? Oklahoma Red is likely cruising what the undersized dress reveals of Nancy’s body.4 For us, though, the dowdy regalia clashes comically and somehow poignantly with Brooks’ – forget the character’s – sharply projected aura of sophistication and native intelligence.

Much of this frisson arises from the way her Dutch bob, though liberated from the flat cap, refuses a comfortable coexistence with the rustic, pioneer woman sunbonnet. This raises the question: just how important is this haircut to the Brooks mystique? Obviously, very. Brooks had always sported some version of the hairstyle, which showed in photos from her Kansas girlhood as more of a bowl cut (easily rendered at home?).

It might be fun to speculate as to why Louise chose to retain into adulthood the haircut her mother gave her as a child, but in any case, it was no fashion statement, even as the bob became one in the twenties.5 Nor was it unique to Louise in the entertainment industry. Other actresses of the twenties, such as Colleen Moore, were characterized by a variant of the Dutch bob. But in framing Brooks’ face, the style’s simple black shape, with its sharply delineated contours, supported an entirely different feminine image from that of Moore’s, which was one of a cute, perky, only mildly subversive flapper jazz baby. In the mid to late twenties, Brooks’ emergent persona diverged from any Hollywood female ideal of the time, and the bob certainly played its role, especially when its attendant bangs allied with Louise’s keen gaze. Indeed, the bangs, as they curtain Brooks’ high forehead down to within millimeters of her eyebrows, seem to greatly focus that gaze.

Filmmakers, especially G.W. Pabst, appeared to acknowledge the bob’s power to help define, or degrade (in its absence), Brooks’ uniquely dominant female persona. When, late in Pandora’s Box, Lulu suddenly enters with her hair done up in curls, her potency appears sapped and her wiles compromised.6

Similarly in Beggars, Brooks’ fully revealed face, stripped of its mask-like hair do, makes her look powerless in the face of male sexual entitlement.7 Yet, back in the first scene, in the immediate wake of the murder, the film introduces the fully bobbed Brooks/Nancy as a woman capable – if a weapon is handy – of defending herself against sexual assault and/or rape, even if that demands murder. It’s a bit of dramatic irony that the viewer –unlike the tramps – knows what lies under the cap and what it had signaled of Nancy’s complexity of character when it was visible.

In the end, along with the rest of us, Red/Beery finally grasps that Nancy cannot be the helpless lassie Jim thinks she is – at least not if it turns out that, all along, it had been the black-helmeted Louise Brooks hiding out in that loose-fitting newsboy outfit. Has Red perceived a sexual forthrightness in Nancy (one that Louise can’t help but project) that might encourage her to walk on the wilder side of life (with him) rather than on the milder one offered by the straight arrow Jim? Having witnessed Nancy’s clever manipulation of male ego in the boxcar, he also knows she has the instincts to live on the bum. After all, it’s Jim, her stalwart protector, who had proved himself helpless when faced with the meaner aspects of hobo life. Thus, even if we’re not (we know we’re watching a melodrama), Red is surprised at Nancy’s stand-by-her-man attitude in the face of his ultimatum.

When Nancy insists on rejecting his plan – in spite of this leaving both her and Jim open to capture and an eventual death sentence – Red has an epiphany. “I’ve heard about it, but I never seen it before,” he says, as an intricate thought process migrates across Beery’s brow then telegraphs from his eyes. “It must be love,” he concludes.

Nancy and Jim’s feelings for each other have undercut the rules and wisdom gleaned from Oklahoma Red’s life of self-reliant homelessness, not to mention how the lovers’ mutual dependency points to the lonely emptiness of Red’s ongoing enterprise as tribal potentate. With no need for sound or additional intertitles, we see Red accept enlightenment and contrive to liberate the cornered sweethearts. It’s a fine moment for Beery the actor, who makes Red’s instantaneous, selfless generosity somehow plausible.

William Wellman (left) directing Beggars of Life

Placing them on top of a freight train headed to Canada, Wellman may allow a happy ending for the lovers, but still, you wonder if they’re really right for each other. When Nancy, thinking aloud, says that Red may have been “a nice guy after all,” a suddenly petulant Jim stonewalls the idea. As played by Arlen, Jim may come off as a dim bulb next to the characters played by the high-wattage, superstar personalities of Brooks and Beery, but to be fair to the actor, this is probably a dynamic intended by the filmmakers, who make Jim too soft-headed to understand that Red manufactured their escape.

A final dramatic irony – and switcheroo of expectations – consists in having both Jim and Nancy not know that Oklahoma Red has far exceeded his random act of kindness. Once the two of them are on their way, he loses his life in a hastily concocted, yet successful strategy to make sure the search for Nancy ends in her faked death. Thus, by insuring Nancy’s new life, Red, that erstwhile villain, becomes the hero of the story.

But in the end it’s up to us to realize that Nancy and Red – via Brooks and Beery – have managed to recognize the conflicting identities operating in each of them. Red has witnessed the harder edge of Louise in Nancy, and Nancy has intuited the softer edge of Beery in Red. What we see in Brooks and Beery on the screen is a mixup of the actors’ hardwired personalities and those contrived for their roles, but this is the sort of confusion we expect from movie stars, and, when projected as powerfully as these two do, the kind that used to – still does? – energize the experience of watching a movie.

Jim Tully (left), with cast

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Kino’s release includes a 10-page booklet containing an essay, Be a Hobo and Go with Me, by American critic Nick Pinkerton, that succinctly backgrounds the film. Writing of its source in an autobiography of the same title by novelist Jim Tully (in photo above, standing left of cast), who wrote of his early years as a tramp. Pinkerton makes it clear that Wellman’s film is but a very loose – and romanticized – adaptation of Tully’s darkly recalled material, but that some trenchant details had been gleaned from it, including Jim’s making a shelter of the haystack – a strategy that, to me, had seemed improbable (wouldn’t the unsupported straw just collapse on the two of them?). Pinkerton’s more overarching insights into the film are well grounded, too, and the piece is a pleasure to read.

A word about the score:

Rodney Sauer’s Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, a “chamber ensemble” of five performers, was formed in 1994 expressly to accompany silent films, playing in what Sauer calls an “authentic period style, using original photoplay music.” Since then the Orchestra has enhanced numerous home video releases, and in Beggars of Life, Sauer and company are once again authoritative and expressively pitch-perfect. But the players are not there to lead, distract or showboat, but to underscore, strictly in partnership with the film.

On the Mont Alto internet site, Sauer has posted a fascinating essay detailing the construction of the Beggars score, which he explains is a compiled score adapted from the film’s original surviving cue sheet. The site provides a scan of that vintage sheet, which offers over 40 musical “suggestions,” notated briefly on single staffs, of mostly light classical and pop tunes that floated about in the musical zeitgeist of the early 20th century. Sauer explains that he used the sheet as in its stated intention – an aid for the compiler to select appropriate music – and replaced many of the cues when the published music either could not be located, it was considered ill-suited, or in one case deemed offensive.

For those interested, Sauer’s essay is an excellent inside look at what must be considered a nearly lost art.

USA/1928/B&W/81 min./Silent, with score/1.33:1. Released on Blu-ray disc and DVD by Kino Lorber in 2017.

  1. I’m thinking that, in just four years or so, directives from the Hays office would make the story impossible to film to begin with, especially as Nancy commits a capital crime for which she is not only not punished, but is rewarded in the end with a new life and a nice boyfriend. []
  2. Louise wrote that that Beery saved the picture: “Neither God nor the Devil could have influenced Beery’s least gesture … having been a tramp briefly as a boy, he developed his character with authority and variety. His Oklahoma Red is a little masterpiece.” Lulu in Hollywood (New York: Knopf, 1982), p. 23. []
  3. This ad publicizes a showing with Vitaphone sound added to the silent film, which also featured a synchronized recording of Beery singing his bawdy song.  This version of the film could only be shown in the uptown theaters that were wired for the technology; Kino’s release only contains the fully silent release. []
  4. In the publicity shot of Louise in the milkmaid garb (above), the dress is tight and sheer enough for us to see that, underneath it, she’s wearing only a thin camisole, which allows her breasts (and nipples) clear definition on the outside. []
  5. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” came out in 1920. In the 30s, Brooks, as her movie career more or less evaporated, dropped the bob in favor of other hairstyles. []
  6. In Pandora Box’s last act, Brooks has regained the bob by the time she meets Jack the Ripper, but she intuits his dark agency (and reveres it). When their scene damour ends in her death, Lulu’s an equal partner with the Ripper in meeting it, not his victim. []
  7. In his biography of Brooks, Barry Paris emphasizes the erotic charge that movie mags and other press saw in Louise dressed as a boy (Louise Brooks (New York: Anchor Books, 1989), pp. 224-5. To the contrary, I would argue her androgyny in Beggars acts to undercut her sexual energy. []