Beggars of Life (William A. Wellman, 1928)

Beggars of Life

This, an offering of the Bradford International Film Festival and taking place in the Media Museum, is the second silent movie event I’ve seen accompanied by a live musical accompaniment and it really is the best way to see these films. Neil Brand, who makes a specialism of these things, was again on piano but this time the rest of the band was the Dodge Brothers, with film reviewer Mark Kermode on bass. There is a sense of occasion that comes with a live performance that really adds to the experience of visiting the cinema though, at £15 a ticket it will almost certainly remain a pretty niche way of seeing films, despite Kermode’s jokey challenge at the end “3D’s the past, silent cinema’s the future!”.

Before the band came out to accompany the main feature, we were treated to a short animation, with Daffy Duck being tormented by his animator playing tricks with his backgrounds, and with Daffy himself, an old favourite and a nice postmodernist touch to keep the idea of what film is in the foreground.

The Dodge Brothers’ Mike Hammond introduced Beggars of Life, with a little background into its making and why they’d chosen it to perform to – a skiffle band is not the first accompaniment you’d expect to cinema but this film’s western setting, with a heavy reliance on railroads, suited them nicely.

The story to the film is simple enough: Louise Brooks’ “Girl” (unnamed) is discovered by Richard Arlen’s down-on-his-luck “man” (likewise unnamed), having shot and killed her adopted father who was about to rape her. Facing almost certain capital punishment, she is helped escape by the young man, almost against his will since association with her will mean association with her crime and death for him also if they are caught together. Together they hop trains, coming to love one another and facing the threat posed by other hobos, especially “The Arizona Snake” and “Oklahoma Red” (Wallace Beery), rivals for the “kingship” of the hobos. Beery gets top billing and, for the first half of the film, this is somewhat surprising as the film is clearly a love story for Arlen and Brooks, but it does make sense later, as Beery’s surprisingly nuanced character grabs more screen time. Brooks, especially, has enormous screen presence and was understandably a star but Beery undoubtedly takes over this film.

Though there are some obviously dated techniques and styles on show, there are also some lovely special effects – early on there is footage of the girl telling her story overlaid on the footage of that story unfolding, a beautifully concise way of revealing story without the need for excessive text plates (although there are other places where these do intrude rather badly) – and a surprisingly complex morality. Well, it’s still “boy and girl fleeing injustice” but it’s got nice touches here and there that raise it above the insultingly simplistic.

One of the nicest touches is that Oklahoma Red plays Judge in a mock trial (at which point he is clearly the villain) but, later, the guise of judge is brought back in a much more symbolic and metaphorical way that pushes the story on and adds a little complexity to character.

A lovely little film and a wonderful occasion.

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