Mark Kermode, double bass and harmonica Dodge Brother, told us that every time they play along to Beggars of Life is different. They have cue sheets with the film’s intertitles but use no sheet music and improvise based on the rhythm of the film and the mood of the scenes.
The title song is sung with the opening titles and then Hark Those Bells accompanies the appearance of Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) as he staggers onto screen singing and carrying a casket of hootch for his fellow hoboes.
I’d seen the Dodge Brothers, superbly augmented by Neil Brand on piano, accompany Beggars of Life at the BFI last year (review here) but, as with the music, the experience was something else this time.
The first time I watched this film was on ropey DVD and, through the under-exposed image I only had my eyes on Louise Brooks. By the time of the BFI viewing I still couldn’t keep my eyes off and viewed things largely through her time on screen.
This time though, I paid more attention to the film’s technique and the other performers. This was undoubtedly prompted by the music which has grown closer to the film and consequently highlights certain aspects more emphatically.
In the case of Edgar Washington Blue the band deliberately counter-point his appearances with more serious accompaniment than would have been originally used. Mike Hammond, guitar and voice Dodge Brother, explained that minstrel songs would have been used to emphasise the comedic aspect of this performer. Such stereotyping devalues the actor and his excellent performance but this was just a few years after white actors were still being used in black make-up. Edgar Washington Blue was a decent actor full stop but he was amongst the first black men to make a success in American film.
There’s also no mistaking the film’s intended star and that is Wallace Beery. He gives an energetic and robust performance as the anti-hero. He’s rough and always ready and whilst we don’t particularly like him for much of the story, there’s something playfully honest about him. He’s secure in his own dominance and is merely responding to a harsh, meaningless world in the only way he can.
But the two youngsters teach him a lesson he never expected and he risks all to help them in the end. Maybe this is a tale of lost potential. Red and the rest of the hoboes have mostly run out of options and are where they are because they either don’t fit or got unlucky.
Jim Tully’s original book was an autobiographical account of his own experience of vagrant culture. An orphan and a former hobo he was attempting the same kind of revelatory journalism as George Orwell (in Wigan and in Paris) albeit without the Eton education. He wanted to explain these outcasts to mainstream society.
Louise Brooks’ character, Nancy, hasn’t had much luck. “Rescued” from the orphanage by an abusive farmer, she can take no more and shoots him before he can punish her further. She is found by a young wanderer, Jim (Richard Arlen) who reluctantly agrees to help her escape.
Gradually they become close as Wellman shows them, literally, walking increasingly in step, running in tandem alongside speeding trains and sleeping in a make-shift bed Jim hollows out of a haystack. Wellman’s direction is superb here as he films his young actors running their own stunts and uses the pastoral setting to show their growing closeness and vulnerability as they almost get skewered by the farmer.
When the two enter the sub-culture of the hoboes there are lots of authentic touches. Graffitti on the trucks – with some in-jokes “Hi Louie” and a drawing of some character called "Bill" – and also the hoboes own code to help their fellow travellers find the safest routes.
The hoboes have their own rules and structure and respect is given to the strongest man. Red attempts to enforce his “right” to take advantage of the girl he is protecting but she is too smart and forces him into a fight with Snake.
After Snake removes his false teeth, the two men pummel away like school boys in what looks like a painfully improvised scrap. The rest of the gang joins in and there is mayhem until word comes that the train is being searched by the police.
The gang escape and hide out in an abandoned shack. Red tries to split the lovers apart for their own safety but is dumbfounded when he sees their true feelings… “I heard about it but I never seen it before”.
He sends them off in a car he has stolen along with some female clothing – a double-bluff for the authorities chasing a girl dressed as a boy – and then sets his plan in place to put them in the clear…
Mike Hammond described Beggars as his favourite film and you can understand why. There is a good deal of depth in this story and it certainly repays repeat viewing when its technique and social conscience becomes clearer.
It’s also a different experience when you watch a film in different company. Our two friends were not too familiar with silent film but came away uplifted by the enthusiasm of the band and the quality of the film. It was a collective endorsement of the new and the old.
Whilst the acting skill of Beery is a key component in the film’s authenticity so too (obviously) is the presence of Louise Brooks who looks and acts out of time as always. This film is precious as it’s one of the few American features that allow her to play a dramatically challenging role. She was just 21 when she made it and seemingly set for stardom.
She bravely followed Wild Bill Welham’s instructions to run her own stunts as far as possible and you wonder why, within a couple of years, she’d turned her back on a role in the same director's Public Enemy (Jean Harlow took it and it made her). But it wasn’t to be, she’d done her bit and left a handful of great performances to show us what was possible.
The band were filmed during the performance and it is to be hoped that this will form the basis of a future DVD release (there are semi-official rumours…). I hope so. You can watch Beggars of Life at the Internet Archive but it deserves a restoration and it deserves this great music to be played alongside it.
There's more information of the Dodge Brothers on their website - they accompany other silents White Oak and The Ghost Who Never Returns. Neil Brand truly "...the Doyen of silent film accompanists..." also has a site here.