For today’s viewers, the “hobohemia” so vividly portrayed in Beggars of Life conjures an image of the vagabonds set adrift during the Great Depression. Yet, the movie was released more than a year before the cataclysmic stock market crash of 1929. The film was loosely based on Jim Tully’s novel Beggars of Life: A Hobo Autobiography, published in 1924, which describes his hardscrabble existence on the rails during the recession years of the 1890s and 1900s. By the time the film was made, Tully had established himself across America as the “Mighty Oak of Profane Letters” and throughout Hollywood as an enfant terrible. Born in Kansas in 1888, the scrappy red-haired eleven-year-old ran away from the orphanage his father had sent him to following his mother’s death. He held a variety of jobs before moving to Hollywood in 1921, where he held a variety of jobs including freelance journalist and, for more than a year, publicist for Charlie Chaplin.
Beggars of Life is one of five autobiographical books Tully wrote which detail his transient childhood, and it contains the stories of the menacing criminal tramp Oklahoma Red, who takes the young boy under his wing, and the prostitute Nancy, who shoots and kills her abusive father and brother. A narrative loosely based on these stories was woven into the 1925 Broadway play Outside Looking In by Maxwell Anderson, starring Charles Bickford and James Cagney and produced by a group of investors that included Eugene O’Neill. Louise Brooks remembers attending a performance of the play in the company of Charlie Chaplin, though she later said she would have paid more attention if she had known she would later star in the film adaptation. Brooks bore little affection for Tully. She described him as “short and fat with his belly hanging over his belt, yellow teeth to match his face and hair, full of the vanity of Vanity Fair and H.L. Menken.”
The cast and crew of Beggars of Life were as colorful as Tully himself. The seventeen days of location filming in Jacumba, a small California town near the Mexican border, were filled with hair-raising stunts, hard-drinking nights and countless fights – the norm for a William Wellman picture. The extras on the set, as recalled in an account of the film’s production by Louise Brooks, “were twenty riotous hobos selected by Billy [Wellman] from among the outcasts who financed leisurely drunks by working as extras in films.” They were fond of pranks, such as hiding a lit cigarette in a sleeping hobo’s pants pocket, or, according to Brooks, “lighting newspaper fires under people sitting in canvas chairs.” As they idled away their free time, Wellman would be busy rehearsing dangerous stunts on the trains. He was determined to stage the action scenes as realistically as possible in real time, and not resort to undercranking the camera, a trick used by many filmmakers to create the illusion of speed. Brooks remembers that the train engineers were “dazed by the unconcern with which a runaway flatcar and the caboose were plunged into the gorge, taking with them the second camera and missing the second cameraman by inches.”
Brooks had made only lightweight American comedies before taking on the role of Nancy in Beggars of Life, and it was the first film to capitalize on her androgynous appeal by dressing her in boy’s clothing. The August 1928 issue of Motion Picture Classic ran a full-page spread of Brooks in her boy’s outfit and reported, “Many a girl has wished – or said she wished – she were a boy. Louise Brooks goes one better and becomes one in her portrayal of one of the Beggars of Life in Jim Tully’s screen story. Any time Louise wants a nickel for a cup of coffee, she has only to come to us. In fact, if she’d let us have one with her, we’d go as far as to wrench loose a dime.” Brooks would depart Hollywood for Germany in 1929 to star in two films directed by G.W. Pabst that, years later, would make her into an icon: Pandora’s Box and The Diary of a Lost Girl.
Director William Wellman had earned a reputation as a “man’s man,” known for bullying actors and spinning tales of his exploits as a flyer in World War One. He had worked his way up in Hollywood after being introduced to the industry by Douglas Fairbanks, who wrangled him a role in The Knickerbocker Buckaroo (1919). One year later he made his directorial debut with The Twins of Suffering Creek, and he continued in the same vein, directing westerns and the occasional comedy, until 1927, when Paramount entrusted him with the World War One aviation epic Wings. The film was enormously successful, and received the first Academy Award for Best Picture. It also gave actor Richard Arlen his first big break. When Wellman invited him to join the cast of his next prestige picture Beggars of Life, Arlen was more than happy to go along for the ride.
Brooks and co-star Arlen had built up a certain enmity during their previous movie together, Rolled Stockings (1927), and the hostility between them escalated to a boiling point on Beggars of Life. One night, Brooks reports, Arlen confronted her after he had downed a shot of whisky and said, “Funny thing. I’ve been working at Paramount for three years – a damned fine actor, too – and I make a stinking four hundred dollars a week, while you ride around in your damn Lincoln town car with its damn black satin finish. You – why, you can’t even act!” Arlen would appear in two other movies directed by Wellman, and he played minor parts in film and on television into the 1960s. After Beggars of Life, Wellman achieved enormous success with The Public Enemy (1931) and the original A Star Is Born (1937). He even made another great hobo movie, Wild Boys of the Road (1933), casting future wife Dorothy Coonan as the cross-dressing girl lead.
Wallace Beery brought both his real-life tramp experience and his legendary temper to the role of Oklahoma Red in Beggars of Life. As part of an acting family that included brother William and half-brother Noah, Beery had forged a career out of playing villains and heavies with a comic edge. Brooks and Beery had worked together in Now We’re in the Air (1927), and she marveled at his single-mindedness amidst the wild partying that went on during the filming of Beggars of Life: “Neither God nor the Devil could have influenced Beery’s least gesture before the camera. His Oklahoma Red is a little masterpiece.” He is perhaps best remembered today for his Academy Award performance as the has-been boxer in King Vidor’s The Champ (1931), and as Long John Silver in Victor Fleming’s Treasure Island (1934).
Made in the final months of the silent era, Beggars of Life was modified to capitalize on the success of Warner Brothers’ part-talkie The Jazz Singer (1927). Paramount inserted synchronized music and sound effects, as well as a song, “Don’t You Hear Them Bells?” which Beery himself sings while carrying a cask of White Mule into a hobo jungle. Only the silent version survives. Beggars of Life, set in the 1890s and filmed in 1928, presaged the journey that multitudes of men, women, boys and girls would take during the Great Depression, which hovered just around the corner.
Presented at SFSFF 2007 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra