“Even them people in feather beds ain’t satisfied — we’re all beggars of life.”
A young woman (Louise Brooks) who has just killed her stepfather in self-defense goes on the lam with a hobo (Richard Arlen) — but the leader of a group of thieves (Wallace Beery) is determined to secure Brooks as his “gal” at any cost.
This silent film by director William Wellman is a clear thematic precursor to his Depression-era flick Wild Boys of the Road (1933), but with a fugitive sensibility and less overt social commentary. The story starts off with a bang, as Arlen walks into a room with a dead man, then spots a beautiful young woman descending the stairs; as Brooks describes how she killed her stepfather after he tried to rape her, Wellman superimposes flashback images over her expressive face, to haunting effect. Arlen begrudgingly takes Brooks (a fugitive) under his wing, teaching her how to hop trains (she doesn’t make it on her first try), and their care for one another slowly begins to grow; the scene in which the two acquaintances lie together on a makeshift haystack “bed” is a nervy, remarkably provocative artifact of pre-Code mentality.
Once Arlen and Brooks encounter a group of thieves (led by blustery Wallace Beery), the story becomes a bit more conventional and less intrinsically interesting — though Beery’s “look” when he dons a trash bag and dark glasses to convene a kangaroo court bears viewing (see still below). Things take yet another turn by the end, when Beery experiences a change of heart — but to say more would give away spoilers. While its rather perfunctory storyline prevents Beggars of Life from being a classic of silent cinema, Wellman does present some lovely imagery (helped by Henry Gerrard’s shadowy cinematography), and film fanatics will likely be curious to see Brooks in her final Hollywood film before she left for Germany to collaborate with G.W. Pabst. (Has any actress EVER been more luminous and compulsively watchable on-screen?)
Note: Beggars of Life is actually considered to be Paramount Pictures’ first “talkie”, given the insertion of a song sung by Beery, but this wasn’t included on the version I watched, and in every other respect the film is an archetypal silent picture.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Louise Brooks as Nancy
- Brooks’ sweet, budding “romance” with Arlen
- Wallace Beery as Oklahoma Red
- The opening flashback sequence
- Henry Gerrard’s cinematography
Yes, simply as an early Wellman film, and to see Brooks in her final Hollywood performance. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.