Rob Edelman: Wellman’s Beggars Of Life

Sep 11, 2017

In September and October, New York’s Film Forum will be screening three silent features, all of which highlight the legendary Louise Brooks. Two titles-- PANDORA’S BOX and DIARY OF A LOST GIRL, both shot in Germany by G.W. Pabst-- are classics that have long-been seen and cherished. But the third feature also is well-worth discovering. It is an American film, directed by William A. Wellman and released in 1928. Its title is BEGGARS OF LIFE, and it joins such late-silent-era American classics as THE CROWD and SUNRISE as genuine works of cinematic art. If trekking into Manhattan to take in one of the BEGGARS OF LIFE screenings is impractical, Kino Lorber has just released the film to home entertainment.

BEGGARS OF LIFE is a poignant, simple-- but never simplistic-- film. Its title best-describes the two sweet and innocent lost souls who are its central characters. They are a homeless, hungry wanderer, played by Richard Arlen, and a sexually abused young woman, played by Brooks. These two, who are credited simply as “The Boy” and “The Girl,” meet under the most unusual circumstances and link up to hit the road. They attempt not so much to thrive but to survive in a world that is wrought with everyday cruelty. And soon, they mix with a band of hobos whose leader, who calls himself Oklahoma Red, is played by Wallace Beery. Now one cannot be too sure about Oklahoma Red and his motives. Beneath his crotchety exterior, he may be a kindly soul. Or, just perhaps, he may be the nastiest and most devious of all.

BEGGARS OF LIFE is crammed with stunning, heartrending visuals. As in the very best silent films, the visuals, the images, tell the complete story. For me, the most poignant scenes involve “The Boy” and “The Girl” as they attempt to hop a train or share a night in a haystack. The two are alone in the world, and they share an experience that is certain to bond them, well, forever. As romances go, this may seem predictable, but I could not fail to be affected by the simplicity, sweetness, and basic humanity of these two lost souls. They serve as a stark reminder that all one really needs in life are the simple things: a warm and cozy home, perhaps, and someone with whom to share that home.

Additionally, “The Boy,” “The Girl,” and their plight are reminiscent of Depression-era America. Yet the stock market had not crashed when BEGGARS OF LIFE was produced and released. With this in mind, the film is a blatant reminder that not everyone in the pre-Depression 1920s was hanging out in speakeasies and dancing the Charleston. And lastly, I recall seeing BEGGARS OF LIFE years ago in a print that was barely watchable. However, this version is a digital reproduction of a 35 millimeter print preserved by the George Eastman Museum. It is a pleasure to see, and to savor...

Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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