When a drifter (“The Boy”) knocks on a door of backwoods shack asking for bread, he doesn’t expect to find a murder scene, but that’s what happens in William Wellman’s 1928 silent classic, “Beggars of Life.” The film screened recently at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, and proved to be one of the highlights of the entire program. The film belongs in the canon of great silent films, even though Paramount released it with a limited soundtrack.
It turns out that the murder victim is the step-father of Louis Brooks’ character, known in the movie as “The Girl.” As the visitor (played by Richard Arlen) realizes that the stepfather is dead, he discovers the Girl hiding in a closet. She quickly reveals how she came to murder the man – he groped her and suffered the consequences. That explanation is enough for the Girl to gain both the Boy’s and audience’s sympathy. So, they take off together and ride the rails for a while, with Brook’s character dressed as a boy. Wellman used a similar plot in “Wild Boys of the Road,” a 1933 movie that I previous reviewed in this blog.
The Boy, already a hobo, hops the train easily; but the Girl finds it troublesome from the start. Getting far away from the murder scene becomes even more difficult when the couple meets a gang of tough hobos led by the gruff and always belligerent Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery). They share a freight car together in an atmosphere of fear and desperation. Oklahoma Red soon sniffs out that there’s a girl in their midst, and sets out to throw the Boy off the train. His plan stalls when detectives arrive to chase the hobos off into the night.
The Boy and the Girl find refuge in a shack with a couple of friendly hobos, and we get to see a touch of human kindness amid the unrelenting misery. Oklahoma Red shows up eventually to torment the couple, but Wellman and the screenwriter (Benjamin Glazer, from a story by Jim Tully), attempt to redeem his character by the end. Beery was a very popular star who played a lot of mean characters, but most of them were not completely evil.
Brooks is so luminous and lovable that I’m glad she teams with a capable romantic actor here, Richard Arlen. In later interviews, Brooks said Arlen could barely act at all, but that’s not evident in this picture. Of course, it’s hard to believe anyone could take Louise Brooks for a boy, no matter how masculine she dresses in this picture. But she puts her hat on, pulls it down and fools the rest of the cast until Beery shows up.