Beggars of Life (1928)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Crime Drama  |   Run Time - 80 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Bruce Eder

Wings (1927) may be William A. Wellman's most renowned silent film -- having won the first Best Picture Oscar -- but Beggars Of Life deserves just about as much recognition within its more modest boundaries. For starters, it is the best of Louise Brooks' American films, and on that basis alone would be worth seeing. Despite the overpowering presence of Wallace Beery in the top-billed part of Oklahoma Red, Brooks acquits herself memorably as Nancy, the sad, harried teenage waif, who has killed the guardian who was trying to rape her. In a few short scenes and some telling close-ups, she nearly steals the picture from her co-stars with her quiet, reserved, yet deeply emotional performance. And beyond Brooks' work, Beggars Of Life has a massive amount going for it, not least of which the visual poetry of Wellman's direction and Henry W. Gerrard's cinematography. The movie was shot almost entirely on location, and the verisimilitude achieved, and the energy of the resulting scenes -- including some harrowing train sequences -- give the movie a fierce immediacy that comes through with laser-like intensity, even eight decades later. But more than that, the realism of the settings and Wellman's care with his actors helpt to turn virtually each and every shot into a haunting essay on desolation, loneliness, greed, and hunger, that last of a deeply psychic nature. We see all of those elements from two sides, written on the face of the innocent, quietly wounded Nancy, struggling to come to grips with life and what it has done to her, and on the desperate, hungry visages of the downtrodden, often evil, sometimes mentally unhinged men who occupy the hobo jungle. The plot moves forward at a breakneck pace, with a number of surprising twists and turns, all leading to an exciting, bittersweet denouement that gives Beery the last word and final shot. He's a powerful presence here, even if he is acting in a style far removed from Brooks's work, and Arlen -- displaying some of the same raw energy that he called up in Wellman's Wings -- has some powerful scenes as well. Long believed to be a lost film,Beggars Of Life was restored in the early twenty-first century by George Eastman House, working from the sole surviving 16mm print.