Saturday November 05, 2022

Movie Review: Beggars of Life (1928)

WARNING: SPOILERS

This is a beautiful little silent film with great performances from the three leads, particularly Wallace Beery as Oklahoma Red, as well as an iconic tomboy-hobo look from Louise Brooks.

It’s based on a 1925 stage play, “Outside Looking In,” by Maxwell Anderson, which was based on the 1924 hobo memoir “Beggars of Life” by Jim Tully. Not sure why Anderson changed the title but I’m glad someone at Paramount changed it back. “Outside Looking In” kind of just floats, doesn’t it? A lot of vowels hanging around without sticking to anything. “Beggars of Life” plants its feet.

I watched it because it’s one of my Cagney-adjacent movies. There are a lot of odd little connections:

  • The play “Outside Looking In” was James Cagney’s big theatrical breakthrough. He probably became what he became—or he had a chance to become what he became—because of this play.
  • When it moved to Hollywood, they made it without any of its theatrical stars, none of whom had arrived yet. The lead, Charles Bickford, wouldn’t show up until 1929, Cagney until 1930.
  • Even so, the director of “Beggars,” William Wellman, is the guy who made a movie star out of Cagney. He convinced Darryl Zanuck to switch roles and give Cagney the lead in 1931's “The Public Enemy.”  
  • Two years after that, Wellman directed “Wild Boys on the Road,” another hobos-riding-the-rails movie, with the lead played by Frankie Darro, who had played the young Cagney in “Public Enemy” (until the role-switch, basically).
  • Apparently Wellman was so impressed with Louise Brooks in “Beggars” that he wanted her for “Public Enemy,” but she bowed out and the role went to Jean Harlow. But in “Wild Boys,” there’s a Brooks-like role—a girl attempting to pass in newsboy cap and jacket—and she’s played by Dorothy Coonan. Who, within a year, became Dorothy Coonan Wellman. She and Wellman remained married until his death in 1875.

Don’t know what to make of all those coincidences.

The rest of the world
Jim (Richard Arlen, playing the theatrical Cagney role), is a hobo who shows up at a farmhouse, peers through the screen door, and sees a man seated before a meal. He smacks his lips and asks if he can have some. The guy doesn’t respond, because, yeah, he’s dead, and the girl who did it, Nancy (Louise Brooks), is hiding out on the second floor. It was her stepfather, he was sexually abusing her, etc.

But no one’s going to believe her so they take to the road, she wearing a newsboy cap and jacket to pass as a boy (right). They should split up—she’s wanted for murder, after all, and the cops somehow know he’s traveling with her—but they both wind up heading west. The first half-hour is a kind of Chaplinish picaresque. They ride rails, share sandwiches, dig a hole in a haystack to sleep. There, he puts his legs over hers and you see fear in her eyes. “To keep you warm,” he says, and she relaxes.

The rest of the world isn’t so nice. One night, they stumble upon a hobo camp but they’re told to get lost—until Oklahoma Red (Beery) shows up with a barrel of liquor over his shoulder. He’s a big, big-hearted man who lets everyone have a drink. Unfortunately, when Nancy bends over for a cup, a guy named Arkansas Snake realizes she’s a girl and it gets creepy fast. “Hey girlie,” he says, and all but descends. Except then someone brings out the WANTED poster and none of them want to be around someone who might draw the cops. Red disagrees, there’s a fight, the cops descend anyway. Then they all hop the next rail to the next town.

Turns out this is a frying pan/fire moment. Up to this point, Oklahoma Red has seemed brassy and fun; now a darker side emerges. To the girl he says, “C’mon, baby, don’t be so exclusive.” To Jim he says, “Why do you think I let her ride with us? My name ain’t Santa Claus!” To everyone he proclaims, “When I ride with a gang, it’s my gang! And if there’s a gal in the gang, she’s my gal!”

He sets up a kangaroo court to convict Jim of the crime of not being a true hobo—basically to get rid of him. Smart, but the girl is smarter. After Jim is sentenced to be thrown from the train, she claims the right to pick her own guardian—and it’s not Jim. It’s Arkansas Snake. So she pits the two biggest men against each other. Red wins that battle but Jim winds up with the gun, and anyway “A bunch of dicks is searching the train!” Here it gets action-y. At one point, Red detaches their car from the rest of train, then it’s out-of-control, then he finally stops it and everyone can hop out.

Our heroes wind up hanging in a shack with a Black man, Black Mose (Blue Washington), who’s carrying a white cripple. We first noticed Mose on the train. He stuck out there because he seemed like a real person, not the usual stereotype of the day. A little background on the actor: Blue Washington is a former Negro Leagues player who went on to have a long if mostly uncredited career in Hollywood. He was in some big movies, including “King Kong” and “Gone with the Wind,” but playing the types of roles you’d expect. Even his credited roles were problematic: Sambo, Hambone, and four different versions of Mose, short for Uncle Mose, which—I didn’t know this—was the male counterpart to the Mammy/Aunt Jemima figure. Washington is also the father of Kenny Washington, who 1) went to UCLA with Jackie Robinson, and is 2) the Jackie Robinson of professional football, breaking the NFL’s color barrier in 1946. During a three-year career as a running back with the Rams, he averaged 6.1 yards a carry.

Here, sadly, “not the usual stereotype of the day” doesn’t last. At one point, Mose is seen comically plucking a chicken. And he’s the last person to realize that his charge, the crippled guy, is dead.

At this point, our heroes are on the lam from both the cops and Oklahoma Red, and it’s the latter who finally catches up with them. He tells the girl that she’s doing nothing but endangering Jim, and she admits this. But when he decks Jim, takes his gun, and demands she go with him, she responds that she’d rather be hung. And here it gets interesting. Red looks both confused and amused. He scratches his jaw. “I’ve heard about it but I’ve never seen it before. … It must be love!” he says via intertitles. And then this additional thought: “I knew there was something wrong with you two.”

God, that’s good, and Beery’s amazing. Add him to the list of actors, like Cagney, who can play bad men that you actually like. For half the film he’s a would-be rapist but he still wins us over. In the end, he risks his life for them. He gives his life for them. His foot slips and they get away. But it’s Oklahoma Red we think about in the end.

Like the clouds
If you’re wondering about the title, it comes from something Jim says in the early going:

Ain’t it funny when you think of the millions of people in warm houses and feather beds, and us just driftin’ around like the clouds? But I guess it’s about even when you boil it down. Even them people in feather beds ain’t satisfied—we’re all beggars of life. 

Here’s the oddity: That speech isn’t in the book “Beggars of Life.” The closest we get to the title phrase is when Tully says in the early going, “Everything seemed to pass through my mind—I was not a beggar at the gates of life—I would return to St. Marys a rich man.” So either Benjamin Glazer, who adapted the memoir for the screen, came up with it, or it was in Maxwell Anderson’s play. But if it was in Anderson’s play, that means Anderson invented a justification for the title without using it as the title. Plus he gets no screen credit here. Paramount claims it was adapting Tully, not Tully/Anderson.

To which … yeah, I doubt it. The memoir is loose and episodic. There’s a kangaroo court but it’s in a prison not a railroad car. There’s an Oklahoma Red but he doesn’t show up until Chapter 21 and only sticks around for three of the book’s 31 chapters. There’s a girl who kills her molesting father but Tully doesn’t meet her on the road; he remembers her from his hometown, St. Marys, where he met her in the red light district. Yet all these elements magically came together in the movie the same way they came together in Anderson’s play? 

From what I can glean from reviews back then, the play began in the hobo camp, and we get the stories of Jim/Little Red and Nancy by and by. Apparently Jim met Nancy on the road, too, post-murder—which makes way more sense. It makes you realize what a fantastic coincidence the movie opens with: Jim just happening upon a house mere minutes after a murder has been committed. But I’d say the movie’s most dated scene is near the end when Nancy dresses up in girlish attire—bonnet and dress—for Jim. He, and the film, think she’s lovely, but to modern eyes she looks ridiculous: like a dress-up doll. I actually laughed out loud. Her hobo-tomboy outfit is much more contemporary. Not to mention cool.

But these are minor matters. Wellman filmed this thing beautifully and touchingly. I’d love to see it on a big screen someday.

SLIDESHOW


  • The play was a theatrical breakthrough for James Cagney, and the movie version of it, without Cagney, was produced and directed by Bill Wellman, who would give Cagney his movie breakthrough three years later.

  • On the road and on the lam. One of Wellman's beautiful shots.

  • Apparently Wellman was impressed by the many stunts Brooks was willing to do.

  • It's a 1928 movie. Two years later, this would be a lifestyle.

  • Just before the leg incident.

  • They meet a lot of scoundrels, including Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, who kicks them off his truck.

  • Black Mose, played by Blue Washington, a former Negro Leagues player whose son would become the Jackie Robinson of professional football. 

  • Half the film is Jim protecting the girl from rape, basically.

  • Including from Oklahoma Red, played brilliantly by Wallace Beery. 

  • Trying to figure out an angle or calculate the meaning of love.

  • The laugh-out-loud incident. The jacket and newsboy cap are way more modern.

  • The villain we think about, and care about, in the end. *FIN*
Posted at 07:05 AM on Saturday November 05, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 1920s  
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