Sunday, October 06, 2013

Beggars of Life (2010 restoration by George Eastman House, funded by The Film Foundation)

George Eastman House Motion Picture Department Collection

BEGGARS OF LIFE [not released in Finland] (US © 1928 Paramount, Famous Players-Lasky) D: William Wellman; pres: Adolph Zukor, Jesse L. Lasky; supv: Benjamin Glazer; asst. D: Charles Barton; SC: Benjamin Glazer, Jim Tully, based on the book Beggars of Life, a Hobo Autobiography by Jim Tully (1924), and the play “Outside Looking In” by Maxwell Anderson (NY, 1925, co-prod: Eugene O’Neill); intertitles: Julian Johnson; DP: Henry Gerrard; ED: Alyson Shaffer; script girl: Marjery Chapin [Mrs. William Wellman]; C: Wallace Beery (Oklahoma Red), Louise Brooks (Nancy), Richard Arlen (Jim), Edgar Blue Washington (Mose), H.A. Morgan (Skinny), Andy Clark (Skelly), Mike Donlin (Bill), Roscoe Karns (Hopper), Robert Perry (Arkansas Snake), Johnny Morris (Rubin), George Kotsonaros (Baldy), Jacques Chapin (Ukie), Robert Brower (Blind Sims), Frank Brownlee (fattore/ farmer), Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (autista/driver of bakery van), Harvey Parry (vagabondo/hobo; controfigura di/double for Louise Brooks), Pee Wee Holmes (vagabondo/hobo); theme song: “Beggars of Life” by J. Keirn Brennan (words), Karl Hajos (mus.); song (sound version): “Don’cha Hear Them Bells?” by ?, sung by Wallace Beery; filmed: 19.5-20.6.1928 (locations: Jacumba, Goat Canyon Trestle, Carrizo Gorge, San Diego County, California; Paramount studio); rel: 22.9.1928 (silent version: 7504 ft; part-sound version: 7560 ft); 35 mm, 7324 ft, 81' (24 fps); print source: George Eastman House, Rochester, NY. Preservation funded [2005] by The Film Foundation. English intertitles. Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone), with e-titles in Italian, music: Günter Buchwald and ensemble (piano, violin, bass), 6 Oct 2013

Kevin Brownlow: "A girl disguised as a hobo, riding the rails, was a feature of the 1926 First National film Miss Nobody, with Anna Q. Nilsson. Walter Pidgeon played the gang leader, eventually unmasked as a Jim Tully-like author, researching his next book. The real Jim Tully, having escaped from an orphanage and become a teenage tramp, launched himself on a literary career. He was press agent for Chaplin. But his articles on picture people were often so unflattering he became the most hated man in Hollywood – a title he relished."

"“Wild” Bill Wellman, once a juvenile delinquent himself, directed at Paramount a picture about a Russian vaudeville troupe called You Never Know Women (1926), which would now be regarded as an art film. After the monumental Wings, Beggars of Life was again given a somewhat European treatment. Benjamin Glazer, co-author of the screenplay, had written You Never Know Women and the artistic hit 7th Heaven. He was also the producer of this picture."

"When Wellman came to London in the 1970s, I ran him my l6 mm print of this picture. He was rather pleased with it. He spotted Bob Perry, whom he said was an old-time prizefighter, Big Boy Williams, a former cowboy, and his regular stunt man Harvey Parry playing one of the tramps."

"Wellman knew this world – Tully identified him as a “road kid” along with himself, Jack London, Kid McCoy, and James Cruze. He returned to the subject with his 1933 classic, Wild Boys of the Road."

"In 1966, Louise Brooks was working on an article on the film (published as “On Location with Billy Wellman” in The London Magazine in 1968, and reprinted in 1972 in both Film Culture and Focus on Film). She sent me several letters, asking for technical details and providing fascinating background in return."

"“Wallace Beery was a damn fine actor, but he worked all day to figure out ways in a two-shot to get your back to camera. Wellman used to say to me, ‘Don’t let him do that to you.’ I said, ‘I don’t give a damn what he does. You’re the director.’ The upshot was that he’d have to take closeups of me to get my face in the picture, so I’d be in a closeup while Wally would be in a two-shot!"

"“Wellman damn near killed me in that picture. Did you ever try to hop a train? The thing will suck you right under. Except for that dive down the embankment done by my double [Parry], I did everything. Wellman might have broken my spine dropping me off the back of the milk cart. But good old Bill was always safe behind the camera. None of this will get in my article. Because I never saw him do anything mildly dangerous is not proof of cowardice. I am going to tell all the good things about him, too. How hard he studied his script, and prepared for his day’s work. How he always did his best. How sure and fast he worked. How sympathetic he was, to the degree he could feel anything. He was not a very sympathetic man."

"“As for my part, I am an embarrassment. But you admire Arlen? He is perhaps the worst actor who ever made faces in front of a mirror. James Cagney originated the part on Broadway and Arlen’s performance resembled Cagney’s like Little Lord Fauntleroy resembled Huckleberry Finn.”"

"I had already interviewed Wellman for The Parade’s Gone By… and I found him both sympathetic and colourful: "

"“Wally Beery was a son of a bitch, and I was very fond of him. And in the end I never had any trouble at all. I’m the only director, I think, who ever got along with Wally."

"“We wanted to put one song in – so Beery sang a song. [‘Don’cha Hear Them Bells?’, for which both the picture and soundtrack are now missing.] And that was my first introduction to sound. I remember that it burned me up that you couldn’t do anything with the mike, it had to be stuck on a branch or in a tree. I said ‘Well, hell, why can’t we move it?’ ‘No.’ And that was what we went through.”"

"“During May and June 1928, when the film was shot,” wrote Louise Brooks, “studios clung to their delusion that Vitaphone was a passing vogue. It wasn’t until the summer conventions that Metro, Paramount and UA decided to start talkies. Roy Pomeroy set up a little sound stage at Paramount in August. B of L was released in September. “Wellman was not a positive force at the time. Each day’s footage shot at Jacumba was taken by car to the lab in Hollywood. He waited on Barney [Glazer]’s okay. Left to himself, Wellman would have made a swell action picture."

"“I never knew the name of the cameraman [Henry Gerrard] but he was expert and he was fast. Wellman never had to go into a three- hour argument to get him to shoot anything.” Gerrard, who would also shoot Ladies of the Mob and Legion of the Condemned for Wellman, came up with the idea of the opening montage."

"“There was one other expert who never got credit; the engineer of the train. When we arrived at Jacumba he was a very simple man who went chug-chug up and down that strip of track. He could do it in his sleep. Then he had to get used to Wellman with his instructions, without telling him how to do it. He was rather astonished with me – so beautiful and so careless. He had to get used to Arlen pulling out the hairs on his forehead for a hairline; and Beery, flying his plane in and out each day, demanding better box lunches. But in two days, the engineer had learned everything. He could start and stop the train on a chalk mark. Speed it. Slow it to match perfectly the camera speeds. There was no undercranking."

"“This engineer was dazed by the unconcern with which a runaway flatcar and caboose were plunged into the gorge, taking with them the second camera, and missing the second cameraman by inches.” Reviewers were less than enthusiastic. Variety described it as “Not an exceptionally good picture … it misses because the story doesn’t mean a thing.” Picture Play was more impressed, but failed to print its review for four months: “Sordid, grim and unpleasant, it is nevertheless interesting and is certainly a departure from the normal movie… distinguished direction and photography and undeniable sincerity of intention.”"

"For many years, this film was available in a l6 mm copy so badly printed that facial expressions were impossible to see. Eastman House recently revisited their negative and have produced a far superior copy on 35 mm. The faces still tend to be somewhat burned out, but the quality of the production is at last apparent. The sound version has still not turned up, but the film has been accompanied by many scores and is invariably hailed as a classic. “Every time it plays,” wrote Neil Brand in Sight & Sound (January 2013), “Beggars of Life unfailingly works its rough, footsore but heartfelt magic.”" – Kevin Brownlow (The GCM Catalogue)

AA: I saw Beggars of Life for the first time, although I have been aware of its distinction for a long time thanks to Kevin Brownlow's writings.

William Wellman is at his best here. The mise-en-scène is powerful and assured. The events are unexpected and surprising but feel authentic, based on observation of reality. Wellman knew the milieu he is portraying here.

This is also a key Louise Brooks movie. As in Pandora's Box, sexual abuse of the young woman is the background to the violent plot. Beggars of Life is a chase movie, Louise Brooks being wanted for murder. She had tried to protect herself from her "protector". During most of the movie, Louise Brooks is cross-dressing, dressed as a man.

Wallace Beery is at home in his role of Oklahoma Red, the king of the hoboes. Beggars of Life is also a key railroad film and hobo film.

The intertitles are crisp and eloquent. "Driftin' round like clouds. We're all beggars of life." - "Home. I never had it, maybe I never did."

Beggars of Life is also an action movie. The action scenes are thrilling and more effective than in, say, Robert Aldrich's The Emperor of the North Pole, where Ernest Borgnine's performance can be compared with Wallace Beery.

The live jazz score of Günter Buchwald and company was inspired and perfect for the movie.

Beggars of Life has been hard to see because there have been only a few rare 16 mm prints around. If this restoration has been made from 16 mm, it is miraculous. It does look like a 16 mm blow-up at times, but the restoration has been conducted very well from challenging source materials.

Photos: George Eastman House Motion Picture Department Collection

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