William A. Wellman was known throughout his career as a tough director who made grimy, realistic movies about tough people surviving desperate situations. Though he is perhaps best known for his films about desperate men as underdogs – such as the gangster film The Public Enemy (1931); Heroes for Sale (1933), in which returning World War I veterans struggle to find work in a world that no longer cares about them; and his classic anti-lynching drama The Ox-Bow Incident (1942) – Wellman also frequently exposed the cruel realities of disenfranchised and oppressed lives of women in the United States.
This is particularly true of his female-centered pre-Code Depression-era films such as Night Nurse (1931), So Big! (1932), Frisco Jenny (1932) and Midnight Mary (1933), and in the brutally feminist examination of the persecution of women in society in Safe in Hell (1931). Even in his silent films, such as You Never Know Women (1926), Ladies of the Mob (1928) and Beggars of Life (1928), Wellman displayed an ability to foreground the female perspective of the woman as outsider, demonstrating exactly how poverty-stricken women and young girls were routinely abused, demeaned and sexually exploited in early-20th-century American life.
Wellman typically sided with the underdog, underprivileged and marginalised women and men society had forgotten or tossed aside. Beggars of Life is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Jim Tully, an authentic American renegade and defiant outsider who spent much of his life riding the rails before turning to writing. Maxwell Anderson then turned the novel into the play Outside Looking In, and Paramount based the film on both the play and Tully’s book.
In many ways, Beggars of Life can be seen as a forerunner to Wellman’s pre-Code marvel Wild Boys of the Road (1933), since both films deal with the harsh realities of stowaway girls and boys “riding the rails”, which was an especially brutal experience for homeless young girls on the run. In Wild Boys, a group of teenagers are forced to hit the road when their parents can no longer support them; in an infamous scene, shocking even by pre-Code standards, a young girl dressed in boys clothing is raped on the train by an older man. She survives and tells her friends what happened to her; later, the young child runaways find the rapist and kill him in an act of vigilante justice. Far from blaming the victim, Wellman espoused quick and violent justice for sexual predators who preyed upon young women.
In Beggars of Life, Louise Brooks – in what is generally considered one of her finest roles – plays Nancy, a very young woman who kills her own stepfather with a shotgun when she can stand no more of his sexual abuse. The lengthy montage sequence, during which the camera stays on the face of Nancy as she recalls scenes of her stepfather’s abuse (glimpsed in superimposed images over her face) is nothing short of astonishing in its mixture of gritty feminist realism with expressionist lighting and shot composition. It is arresting to find such an honest moment of female empowerment and testimony in a film that is almost a century old, particularly in the era of #MeToo.
While trying to beg for some breakfast, passing hobo Jim (Richard Arlen) discovers the stepfather’s body, and, after he listens to Nancy’s shocking and painful explanation, the two take to the open road to seek an uncertain future together. To reduce her chances of being sexually exploited, Nancy dresses in men’s clothing – a common practice for women who were thrown into such desperate situations – but they’re soon thrown off a train by one of the railroad’s “bulls”, or enforcers; and, after spending a night in a hayloft, they wind up seeking refuge in a “Hooverville” of drifters and transients.
In hindsight, cross-dressing as a male only makes Louise Brooks even more of a breathtaking beauty, and yet Nancy enjoys some of the privileges afforded to the boys in the film. But this new found “home” offers no real safety, since the makeshift camp is ruled by the violent and capricious Arkansas Snake (Robert Perry), whose authority is continually challenged by the equally brutal Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery). Soon, however, the authorities wade into the camp looking for Nancy, and she and Jim must escape, outsiders on the run. Everywhere Nancy and Jim wander, there are wanted posters for her, which have seemingly sprung up overnight, prominently displaying her photo. This is Wellman’s portrait of America: cold, brutal, heartless and acutely dangerous for even the bravest of young girls.
Wellman’s cinematography is surprisingly romantic and stylised for such a brutal subject, favouring long, lingering dissolves and flashbacks, complete with irised vignettes for close-ups, and the repeated use of tracking shots as Nancy and Jim trudge forward on their journey. The actors do most of their own stunts in the film – something that is especially notable in a scene in which Nancy hops a speeding freight train.
The bucolic vision of the verdant countryside throughout the film contrasts with the hard reality of Nancy and Jim’s plight; nature, associated with the feminine, is seemingly more compassionate and welcoming than male-dominated, capitalist “civilised society”. Surprisingly and effectively, Wellman depends on very few intertitles to advance the film’s narrative; often, characters speak at length without their words appearing on the screen.1
Much of the drive of the film comes directly from the energy and politics of depicting Louise Brooks dressed in men’s clothing, a visual motif that places her in the liminal space between male and female, something made more complex by intersectionality. Beyond gender, Nancy is also socioeconomically oppressed, denied the privilege and status that comes with wealth and familial ties. She is an outsider. Wellman makes bold and defiant statements about both gender and class oppression in this early film: those who are “beggars of life” must risk it all, rise up and resist, for freedom is granted by neither romance nor escape.
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Beggars of Life (1928 United States 100 mina)
Prod. Co: Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation Prod: Jesse L. Lasky, Adolph Zukor Dir: William A. Wellman Scr: Benjamin Glazer Phot: Henry W. Gerrard Ed: Alyson Shaffer Prod. Des: Benjamin Glazer Mus: Karl Hajos
Cast: Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen, Wallace Beery, Roscoe Karns, Robert Perry, Guinn Williams
- Coming as it did at the end of the sound era, there were in fact two versions of Beggars of Life – one completely silent, to be projected with an orchestral (or piano, in smaller theaters) accompaniment, and the other, a part-talking version with dialogue, music and sound effects. The part-talking version is now seemingly lost. ↩