Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Beggars of Life (1928)

From its start, "Beggars of Life" is infused with an incredible energy. The opening sequence is silent narrative at its best and even now, months after I saw the film, it has stayed with me (I made some notes at the time which only now I am translating into a post). Within a minute or so of the credits, we see a young man, clearly a beggar, arriving at someone's house. He lusts after the man's breakfast. He asks if it's possible to have some but the man doesn't reply. He has been shot. A girl (Louise Brooks) comes in, dressed in man's clothes and in a frenetic flashback we learn what happened.

And this is only an appetiser for a film which oozes sex, fear and danger, often at the same time: at some stage, there is real danger that Louise Brooks' character will be gang raped. William Wellman's pace is frenetic and his direction assured. Having seen recently "Wings", his most celebrated silent film with its amazing aerial sequences, I found it lacking in comparison to "Beggars of Life".

The film is, (and I won't make it justice), a romance road movie, where the Boy and the Girl (they don't have names) have to go through ordeals before they earn the right to Love. In a sense it reminded me of the Borzage at his best, but whereas he usually has an ethereal aspect to the romance, Wellman (clearly a more pragmatic man) keeps them feet on the ground. All in all, this is one the best silent movies I have seen - and I can't recommend it enough.

Other than Louise Brooks, who was a revelation, as I never really "got" her in the couple of films of hers I saw,  the film also stars Richard Arlen (who Wellman also used in "Wings") and an amazing, unforgeattable Wallace Beery, as the bastard with a heart (or whatever is the masculine equivalent of the tart with a heart) . 

I think a word needs to go to the musicians who provided the score: Neil Brand and The Dodge Brothers (film critic Mark Kermode's band) did a fantastic job, creating a fantastic viewing experience. I wouldn't hesitate twice in hearing them providing music for another film. In an ideal world, a home video release of this would have been done long ago, and they would provide the music.


Judy said...

I saw this last year with the Dodge Brothers and they were great then too. Glad to hear you liked it so much, Miguel, definitely one of Wellman's greatest. As you say, the restored print should be issued on DVD without further delay - it's a revelation after seeing the muddy print on the old video release.

Miguel said...

I would like to think that it will make home video at some stage soon, but I am not holding my hopes high.

Very few Paramount silents have been released (the Von Sternberg ones, Wings and It come to mind) and as far as I read, Wings had disappointing sales. So unless someone licences it from Paramount, I wouldn't hold my breath for it.