May 4, 2018
Beggars of Life – US, 1928
To say that Wallace Beery commanded the screen would be an understatement. His face gave the impression of having been in the game for ages, and this added a layer of credibility to his performances. He was such a physical force that it was believable that his character could intimidate even the most menacing of rivals, and he had a swagger about him that made moments in which he stares down someone pointing a gun at him much more authentic than they might otherwise have been. In other words, he was a cinematic force to be reckoned with, and his name in the marquee ensured that the film had at least one thing going for it. It seems logical therefore that he acted steadily from 1913 to 1949, the year of his death.
Having said all that, I must admit to having misgivings about his role in William A. Wellman’s 1928 film Beggars of Life. Like Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho, Beery’s character, Oklahoma Red, does not begin the film as its central character. Instead, the first half of the film focuses on two young people whom life has not been kind to. First, there’s Joe (Richard Arlene), a poor, down-on-his-luck wanderer trying to make his way to Canada. When we first see him, he is walking along a dusty road, desperate for food. He stops at a house that has the front door open, peers inside, and sees a man in a chair next to what to him must look like the most delicious meal in the entire world. He enters the house and offers to work for any food that the man can spare, only then realizing that the man is dead, the victim of a gun shot to the head. It is at this point that we meet the film’s other central character, referred to in the credits as simply the Girl (Louise Brooks). We learn that the deceased man had adopted her and that it is she who shot the bullet than ended his life. We also learn the reason: In her words, the man couldn’t take his hands off of her, and just before Joe’s arrival, he had gone even further in what was clearly an attempted rape. Soon the two of them are racing to the nearest train stop so as to get as far away from the law as possible.
I found this part of the film incredibly involving. Here we have two characters thrown together by fate. One has no option, but to run; the other can clearly sympathize, though we’re never told exactly why. The film is also brutally honest about the risks involved in a woman being a hobo and hopping trains. It is for this reason that she doesn’t trust Joe to be different than any of the other lecherous individuals we meet throughout the picture. In a scene in which the two of them seek refuge from the cold night air in the middle of a haystack, we see the Girl clutch her jacket defensively just below the neck. Later, Joe suggests that she pretend to be his younger brother, and this makes complete sense. In a particularly powerful scene later in the film, we see just how much the sight of a woman can bring out the worst in desperate people.
And then Oklahoma Red makes his entrance and changes the narrative. Now it is he that drives the story. It is here also that the film slightly loses focus, for having built Joe and the Girl up as survivors trying their hardest to make their way to the promised land, it suddenly makes Oklahoma the central character; Joe and the Girl begin to react instead of taking the initiative, and at several points when it would seem logical to flee, they stand around as if paralyzed with indecision. This leaves Joe to be whatever the film needs him to be, be that a protector or a bully.
Oklahoma’s presence also allows the film to veer into unfortunate comedy, and a mid-film scene in which he assumes the role of a judge and gives his henchmen the role of lawyers is a mistake. When faced with the possibility of physical harm and sexual assault, it’s awfully hard to laugh at a character’s zany antics, even if that character has the charisma of this one. Another result of Oklahoma’s larger-than-life presence is that the film does not have enough time to credibly establish Joe and the Girl’s blossoming feelings. As a result, the revelation of their feelings comes across as cheap and unearned, instead of sweet and moving,.
And yet, I rather liked Oklahoma’s character and all of his twists and turns. In another movie, one which followed him from the first scene to the last, they would have complemented each other and given audiences the impression of a truly complex character, one whose views of the world we would witness changing right before our very eyes. Given that extra time, his final actions would make absolute sense. Instead, they feel convenient, the result of a writer sticking too closely to established narrative structures which dictates that characters like Oklahoma can never be entirely bad. The film even has the heroine observe that much. I simply wasn’t convinced.
And this is a shame, for the first half of the film has so much going for it. Wellman, whose films often championed regular, everyday characters, brings to life a world in transition, one in which, like today, there is a clear separation between the have’s and the have-not’s, and one in which the weakest of society get very little empathy and are lent few helping hands. I liked this half a great deal; the rest I appreciated, yet couldn’t shake the feeling that it belonged in another film. In the end, Beggars of Life is hit-and-miss, but what hits is astonishing and what misses still has such style and flair that I feel utterly petty complaining about it. Credit that to Wallace Beery. (on DVD and Blu-ray)