Louise Brooks has become a legend of cinema who continues to fascinate and Beggars of Life showcases her timeless beauty, her striking modernity, and the depth of her talent. While costar Wallace Beery receives top billing, it is Brooks who captivates the camera and captures our imagination.
Before Beggars of Life, the Kansas-born Brooks had been a dancer with the Ziegfeld Follies and her on-screen performances were primarily limited to light comedies, playing impish characters with names such as Snuggles Joy (The City Gone Wild), Fox Trot (Evening Clothes), and Kitty Laverne (A Social Celebrity). A script that identifies her character simply as “The Girl” might not have seemed a step up, but this story of a young woman who kills her cruel stepfather to save herself and then dresses as a man to avoid capture allowed Brooks to change out of her flapper gowns, high heels, and headdresses into pants and a flat cap. Mary Pickford, Marion Davies, and Greta Garbo all played female characters who dressed as men, but Brooks was playing against type to an extreme and brought a new allure to androgyny in the movies. (It has to be assumed she inspired Veronica Lake’s ersatz hobo in Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels.)
The scenario for Beggars of Life is based on the 1924 autobiographical novel by Jim Tully, a writer called “the missing link between Jack London and Jack Kerouac” by one of his biographers. Tully spent several years of his childhood in an orphanage and, when he was twelve, worked for a farmer who abused him, perhaps planting the seeds for this story of escape and survival riding the rails. Dubbed the “Hobo Writer” because of his knockabout past, Tully held a wide variety of jobs, including as a publicist for Charlie Chaplin, before becoming an acclaimed writer for Vanity Fair and H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury.
William Wellman, fresh off Wings (1927), the first Academy Award-winner for best picture, directed Beggars of Life. Wellman had used planes to inspire gasps of fear and awe in audiences who had packed the theaters to see Wings and, in Beggars of Life, he managed to do the same with a train. He filmed Beggars more or less in order with the first ten days spent at Paramount shooting the early farmhouse scenes of the father’s attack and the chance arrival of Richard Arlen’s character. Then it was off for several weeks to Jacumba, California, just north of the Mexican border. A small town of four hundred people that was known for its hot springs, Jacumba’s major attraction for the filmmakers was that the railroad line between San Diego and Yuma passed through it. A train came by only a few times a day, leaving hours for filming on the studio’s railroad cars. The isolated town and its surroundings included mountains, canyons, and miles of empty fields, providing almost all the locations the shoot required.
Brooks drove to Jacumba with costar Wallace Beery, who took one look around and announced he planned to commute daily by plane from Los Angeles. (Many filmdom characters including Beery, Wellman, and Cecil B. DeMille were pilots.) Brooks and Beery had made a film together before, but they bonded on the drive, no small feat considering Beery’s reputation for self-absorption and camera hogging. She was sorry not to have him around after hours, but seventy-five other cast and crew members descended upon Jacumba with many staying in the town’s one major hotel. It had already seen better days and did not provide for luxurious living, but Brooks had her own ground-floor bedroom with a private bath and her maid in tow.
Brooks soon came to the conclusion that Wellman possessed “a quiet sadism,” particularly “in his direction of women.” In spite of Beery urging Brooks not to let the director talk her into doing her own stunts, she did perform most of them. As she told Kevin Brownlow later in life, “Except for that dive down the embankment when the railroad cop hit my hands, I did everything. Wellman risked my legs making me hop a train and you don’t even know that it is I. He might well have broken my spine dropping me off the back of a milk cart. But good old Bill was always safe behind the camera.”
Another source of tension was that Brooks already disliked Richard Arlen, who played the man her character fell in love with. The two had not gotten along when making Rolled Stockings the year before and didn’t respect each other professionally. Arlen had worked with Wellman before on Wings and thought very highly of himself. One drunken evening back at the hotel, he spewed his resentment of her because of her higher salary and for having what he considered the undeserved accoutrements of stardom such as a chauffeur and maid.
Being the only actress on a set run by “Wild Bill” Wellman could not have been easy, but sometimes the recently divorced, twenty-five-year-old Brooks was her own worst enemy. It didn’t help her personal or professional reputation when her male stunt double spread the word of their spur-of-the-moment one-night stand. (It’s little wonder that when the Berlin-based director G.W. Pabst reached out to her to star in Pandora’s Box, she grabbed the opportunity to get out of Hollywood.)
Brooks told these stories and many more in her book, Lulu in Hollywood, which has to be one of the least deferential Hollywood memoirs ever written. Her sharp opinions and observations about her colleagues and her experiences were partly responsible for Brooks’s rediscovery after the decades of obscurity that followed her departure from filmmaking in the mid-1930s. The restoration of her films by the George Eastman House (now the Eastman Museum), along with her late-in-life friendship with its preservationist, James Card, are key to the revival of her films.
Wallace Beery’s rough-edged and naturalistic performance as Oklahoma Red portends his Academy Award-winning role in 1931’s The Champ and his two acclaimed portrayals in Min and Bill and The Big House, both from 1930. While Brooks credited Wellman with directing the first part of the film “with a sure dramatic swiftness,” she thought it was Beery’s performance that elevated the picture. “Neither God nor the Devil could have influenced Beery’s least gesture before the camera … His Oklahoma Red is a little masterpiece.”
Another role worthy of note in Beggars of Life is Big Mose, portrayed in a nuanced performance by the former prizefighter and Negro League baseball player Edgar “Blue” Washington. Having an African American play a sympathetic character who mixes with the rest of the ensemble on almost equal terms was close to unheard of in the 1920s, and for decades afterward.
The year 1928 marked the full throttle transition to sound and the end of masterful silent epics such as King Vidor’s The Crowd and Victor Sjöström’s The Wind. Beggars of Life might not be known for having the great expanse of those films, but several years had to pass for sound technology to advance far enough to record complex action shots like the ones captured so well by cinematographer Henry Gerrard and his crew with their silent hand-cranked camera.
When Beggars of Life was released that September, theaters, particularly in major cities, were rushing to install sound equipment. Exhibitors put pressure on studios to provide sound in their films so theater owners could recoup the expense. Sound effects, music, and a bit of dialogue were subsequently added to Beggars of Life. Wallace Beery recorded a song (“Hark the Bells”) and that fact was plastered on ads to attract audiences to what was billed as Paramount’s first sound film. (At the time, Paramount had only one soundstage, which operated on a twenty-four-hour-a-day schedule until more could be built.) All these years later, when more than seventy percent of silent films are considered lost, there is a touch of irony that the only version of Beggars of Life remaining today is silent.
Louise Brooks, in her best American film, is luminous as a freight-train hopping runaway who dresses in a flat cap and trousers to escape capture by the police. She joins up with young vagabond Richard Arlen, and along the way they encounter a hobo encampment and its charismatic leader, played by Wallace Beery in a performance that Brooks later called “a little masterpiece.” William A. Wellman, whose Wings (1927) had just won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Picture, directs with nuance and grace.
Presented at SFSFF 2016 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra