Combustible Celluloid
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With: Wallace Beery, Louse Brooks, Richard Arlen, Blue Washington, Kewpie Morgan, Andy Clark, Mike Donlin, Roscoe Karns, Bob Perry, Johnnie Morris, George Kotsonaros, Jack Chapin, Robert Brower, Frank Brownlee
Written by: Jim Tully, Benjamin Glazer
Directed by: William A. Wellman
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 82
Date: 09/22/1928

Beggars of Life (1928)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Hobo Beau

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In recent years, critics have banded together to bolster the reputation of director William A. Wellman, a.k.a. "Wild Bill." To my eyes, however, he's something of a message-happy filmmaker and is more than a little heavy-handed at times, though he has created some great moments. This silent-era classic, Beggars of Life, is surprisingly one of his best. Yet it's probably better known as one of the key films in the short, sweet career of Louise Brooks, that forever-luminous cult star, enshrined in her black helmet haircut. Like Garbo, she has a definite, superlative star power; she popped from the screen, and it's impossible not to give your heart to her while watching.

She plays a young girl, an orphan. The movie opens when a young man (Richard Arlen) comes across a home. Through the screen door, he sees a man sitting at a table, his back to the door, and some steaming steak and eggs on a plate. A hobo on the road, the man salivates over the food and enters, offering to work for a bite to eat. He discovers that the man is dead, and that the girl has killed him. In a striking, superimposed sequence, she explains that he was her adoptive uncle and that he got a little too "handsy" with her. They hit the road, but she is already wanted for murder.

They eventually stumble across a hobo encampment, i.e. a "jungle," and meet Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery), who has brought some stolen booze. Red holds a hilarious (cleverly written) kangaroo court, hoping to steal the girl and send the man packing. But with the cops hot on the trail, the hobos need to band together to survive. Beery, not yet an Oscar-winner, gives a big, beefy performance, using his entire body to fill out Red's personality; he was one of the few actors that could show thoughts crossing his face. He's easily a match for Brooks's star power, and together they leave poor pretty boy Arlen in the dust.

Wellman drops a few saccharine moments here and there, pop philosophy about life and whatnot, but for the most part, he and cinematographer Henry W. Gerrard create some truly beautiful images. Frequently, the frame has a softening at the edges, making the story feel more mythical. Other times, they use lines and squares to box the characters in, or decorations (like a cow skull hanging on a wall) to add a sinister quality to a scene. In two scenes, dead bodies are staged among the living characters. And the "jungle" scene, as well as a single candle lighting a cabin, are examples of expert lighting.

But even amidst all this artistry, Wellman and his cast and crew still create a richly entertaining tale, effortlessly coaxing the audience to thrill to chases and train jumping, to root for the lovers, and, eventually, to find sympathy for Red. Kino Lorber is responsible for delivering this gem into our lives -- originally a Paramount title, and still bearing the Paramount logo -- on a newly restored Blu-ray. I found little fault with the picture quality, and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra provides a lively, full-hearted score. William Wellman Jr. and noted Louise Brooks expert Thomas Gladysz (he has been running the Louise Brooks Society at least since the early days of the web) each provide commentary tracks.

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