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DVD Review: Beggars of Life (1928)

“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.” -- title card from the movie.

The anticipation in seeing a film that has such a magnificent reputation as “Beggars of Life” can result in either a good or bad experience. Sometimes, the film is built up beyond its capacity, and turns out to be a disappointment. However, in this case, the film truly does turn out to be every bit as good as its reputation.

Louise Brooks stars as an abused woman who murders her stepfather, and takes up with a hobo (Richard Arlen), escaping into the freedom of no attachment to anyone or anything. Based on the book by Jim Tully, “Beggars of Life” is a very absorbing look at hobo life, with William Wellman’s direction offering the sort of artful visual stimuli and succession of shots that continued to mark his cinematic brilliance throughout his career. He would later revisit portions of this premise in his 1933 film “Wild Boys of the Road.”

The narrative isn’t a linear story, but instead a series of scenes about hobo life that build through the central characters. Brooks’s character learning to survive as a hobo, dressing as a male, hopping trains, and dealing with situations and with others doing the same, is central to the development of the narrative. Her character is central to the theme of the film, but is further bolstered by the magnificent work of Arlen and Wallace Beery. Throughout, Wellman switches from close-ups, to medium and long shots, to tracking shots, each with its own stylistic purpose and all of them matching and flowing with aesthetic cohesion.

The violence of being thrown from a train challenges the Brooks character’s sturdiness from years of stepparent abuse. The support and understanding from Arlen’s character offers friendship at a level she has never experienced. Placing the characters in open fields, framing them with negative space to show how truly alone they are in the world, enhances our interest in their plight. Wellman effectively delivers just how difficult this life is, inspired by Jim Tully’s book of his own experiences.

Wallace Beery, an actor who’d already established himself as capable of playing comedy or drama at either's greatest extremes, is outstanding as a hobo leader who has eyes for the Brooks character and is willing to fight to have her. His towering presence nearly steals every scene, but this is not possible with Louise Brooks at the center of the story. In what may be the finest performance of her career, the 22 year old actress radiates throughout the film, and stands out among its remarkable scenes and impressive supporting performances. It was after this film that Brooks went to Germany and appeared in her better known films like “Pandora’s Box.” But despite many fine performances throughout her career, “Beggars of Life” can be argued to feature her best work.

“Beggars of Life” is a film in which everything works at such an impressive level, it truly earns the reputation of screen classic. Coming near the end of the silent era, “Beggars of Life” shows how this period in American cinema had perfected a filmmaking style that had to be revamped and relearned once talking pictures took over. It also shows an era of hobo life that is outside of the great Depression, which is the setting for most films dealing with this way of life.

The KINO blu ray is digitally restored from 35mm film elements that had been preserved at the George Eastman museum. While some reviewers will carefully nitpick on the tiniest imperfections in visual quality, the fact that we have this beautiful of a print of a 1928 classic is for celebrating. Sharp images throughout, including the night scenes where the actors are framed by dark negative space.

The music by the reliable Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra offers selections from the original 1928 studio cue sheet. Extras include commentary by William Wellman jr. and by Thomas Gladysz. In fact, there is an affordable and highly recommended book that goes perfectly with the blu ray. Gladysz, director of the Louise Brooks Society, has written a companion book to the movie that features a wealth of information, insight, and photos. It really puts this film into historical perspective and helps to further understand and more deeply appreciate its status as a screen classic.

The blu ray is available here.

The companion book is available here

James L. Neibaur
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