Beggars of Life [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Kino Lorber
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (4th August 2017).
The Film

Handsome young tramp Jim (Island of Lost Souls' Richard Arlen) happens upon a homestead hoping to work for a meal, only to find the owner dead. Adopted orphan Nancy (Diary of a Lost Girl's Louise Brooks) claims that she shot accidently him while fending off his assault. Not wanting to get involved but taking sympathy on the girl (who has dressed herself in men's clothing to run away), freight train-hopping Jim plans to put her on an eastbound train while he makes his own way to Canada. When Nancy is unable to hop aboard the passing train, Jim decides to take her with him as the police will be less likely to find her in Canada. They hop another train but are caught and Nancy injures her ankle when she is shoved off the train by the conductor (who mistakes her for a boy). When Jim notices a wanted poster with Nancy's photograph, they seek anonymity in a hobo camp who are all planning to hop the next passing train. Nancy manages to pass herself off as a boy by remaining quiet, but she is exposed by hobo Oklahoma Red (The Lost World's Wallace Beery) who has challenged The Arkansas Snake (The Long Voyage Home's Bob Perry) for leadership of the group and threatens Nancy with another sexual assault until Jim reveals that she is a wanted murderer. The Arkansas Snake wants nothing to do with the couple as their presence will bring have the law after all of them, but Oklahoma Red insists that she ride with them. Aboard the train, Oklahoma Red renews his efforts to get his hands on Nancy by holding a kangaroo court, sentencing Jim to be pushed off the train and to determine the "guardianship" of Nancy. Nancy asserts herself by playing Oklahoma Red and The Arkansas Snake against one another but the news that the cops are aboard the train prevents their escape. Oklahoma Red manages to buy the group time by disconnecting the train cars and the hobos escape, with Jim and Nancy taking shelter in a shack. Slipping into town and stealing a car, Oklahoma Red plans once again to make Nancy choose between himself and Jim with the prospect of escape as the law closes in. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel of hardboiled writer Jim Tully (Laughter in Hell), Beggars of Life as scripted by Benjamin Glazer (Carousel) and directed by brawler William A. Wellman (A Star is Born) was a pre-depression look at the life of the disenfranchised that rendered them in all their dimensions: noble, tragic, criminal, fatalistic, and gregarious. Besides Red, Snake, and the tragic lovers, there is also Black Mose (The Haunted Ship's Blue Washington) who carries with him a crippled and blind white friend, none of whom ever think to cash in on the reward money by turning Nancy in (even though Red, Snake, and many of the others are as eager to take advantage of her), and Beery's contemptible Red eventually redeems himself after finally witnessing true love firsthand. Landing smack dab in the middle of Brooks' thirteen-year film career, the film features her in her trademark short hairstyle that does not quite give her the tomboy look required but her appeal and glamor remain. Brooks grew increasingly disenchanted with Hollywood and acting in general, and would follow this up with a trip to Germany where she would headline G.W. Pabst's masterworks Pandora's Box - from which she would earn the nickname "Lulu" - and Diary of a Lost Girl. The work's title alludes to the universality of people wanting more from life they have, be it Nancy's and Jim's want of a place to call home to those with more still needing to fill some unknown desire.

Video

Long unavailable apart from gray market label releases, Beggars of Life has been restored in high definition from a print preserved by the George Eastman House, and the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed transfer is not pristine but the film's compelling visuals and innovative camerawork withstand the ravages of time, and a crisp image is evident beneath the usual scratches. Some non-optical vignetting is evident with wide angle shots but that is a side-effect of the early lenses, and the film remains watchable and the star quality of Brooks, Arlen, and Beery still manages to leap off the screen. Some of the intertitles have been recreated and the originals make inflections of delivery evident with bold, italic, and spacing of letters.

Audio

A new Mont Alto orchestral score is provided on a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track, and it not only underlines the melodrama but also gives the action sequences the feel of an early serial.

Extras

The only extras are a pair of audio commentaries. The first is by actor William Wellman, Jr. (It's Alive!), son of the film's director who notes that his father regarded the film as his favorite over the Academy Award-winning Wings, reasoning that the latter production was difficult with Wellman Sr. required to engineer the aerial photography methods himself and work under threat of being fired by the studio. He also discusses his father's other films, his working relationships with Brooks, Arlen, and Beery, as well as source novel author Tully, and provides plenty of anecdotes about the film's location shoot (including hiring unemployed locals to work on the film after they got into a brawl with the film's crew and destroyed a local pool hall). The track is highly recommended. The second track features Louise Brooks Society founder Thomas Gladyz who draws on Brooks' autobiography as well as an essay she penned on the film and her working relationship with Wellman. Plenty of Brooks trivia is provided here along with more background on the film on which Gladzy has recently penned a companion book. He also provides some additional information about Wellman and the film's lost sound version (reportedly Columbia Pictures' David O. Selznick was on set for a day and observed Wellman utilizing a broom handle to follow Beery with a microphone during a tracking shot to record dialogue as Wellman hated how early sound recording required static cameras and performers). A ten-page booklet by Film Comment critic Nick Pinkerton is also included in the case.

Overall

 


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