My GUEST ESSAY this week comes from WENDY T. MERCKEL who I’ve asked to participate in today’s WILLIAM WELLMAN BLOGATHON. She’s picked a doozy from early in Wellman’s career. I don’t know the film, but I am totally intrigued by her depiction of it. Hopefully you will be too. Enjoy:
“I am a funny guy. I fall in love with odd people and odd things…”
YOU HAD ME AT THE TRICKLE OF BLOOD
by Wendy T. Merckel
The first minute of the silent movie “BEGGARS OF LIFE” marks it immediately as a William Wellman film – raw, harsh, and ultimately, transcendent.
In that minute, a tramp (Richard Arlen), starving for food, comes upon a shack in the middle of an open ended dirt road. The screen door is open and hot breakfast is on the table inside. Ham steak and eggs are still steaming on a plate. It smells good. The tramp, named Jim, enters hungrily and asks the man sitting there if he can have a bite of food. He’s willing to work for it. The man is asleep. Jim walks up to him. Something feels wrong. Jim stares, bending down to eye level with the man. He starts. Our gaze is directed at the man’s boot. A drop of blood splashes onto it. Blood is running down his arm into his cupped hand. It’s coming from a gaping wound in his head. His mouth is open, a blank expression on his face. He is dead. This is our blunt introduction to “Beggars of Life”.
Wellman’s immediate suggestion of violence, while shocking, should be expected. His nickname is Wild Bill after all! Still, the violence and shock and just plain oddness of it electrified me, made me sit up in my chair and look closely at the screen. I never stopped looking.
We get a huge amount of information in a short amount of time with Wellman, visual rather than verbal. The tramp backs away from the body, knocking the sugar bowl off the table, and it shatters. There is a cross cut to a girl hiding in a room upstairs. She jumps when she hears the shattered glass downstairs, knocking a chair off the highboy. The characters are now linked by their actions, connected. They’ve heard each other, know an “other” is there. The tension climbs. The tramp looks up the stairs. He is rooted to the spot. The murderer is in the house with him. The young girl cautiously comes out onto the landing, and we get a good look at her. It is Louise Brooks…she doesn’t look sexy or flapper-ish. She’s wearing overalls, a man’s shirt and no makeup. She looks like a young boy, with her short cropped hair. She is frightened and still. The tramp looks up, gulps, and Wellman’s deliberate pace allows us a moment as they stare at each other.
We wonder if the girl did it, or if she will think the tramp did it. We inexplicably like Jim already and we don’t want to see him blamed. Our collective heart skips a beat. It’s an incredibly significant emotional moment. After looking around, Jim finally blurts out, “Did you do that?” Brooks replies, not batting an eye, “Yeah, I did it.” No remorse. Defiant, STRONG. Wellman has dropped the hammer.
“He’s no relation of mine. He adopted me out of the Orphan’s Home two years ago. He’s always been after me…pawin’ me with his hands…and this morning…”
The words are tumbling out of her mouth. An overlapping sequence of scenes starts rushing by underneath her agitated face, via a masterful double exposure. Brooks trying to fend off the lecherous old man’s hands, her bare shoulder exposed as her dress is torn away from her chest. The camera angle sweeps modestly down to the floor, centering on their much too close legs and feet, entangled. Nothing else about the scene is modest. Clothing is ripped. The struggle is way too long, it is uncomfortable. We can’t see all that is going on and it’s terrifying…we only see parts of bodies. All the while Brooks’ face in the superimposed image is becoming distraught as she relates her story. The old man comes at her, excited. She backs up to the wall. She finds a gun there. She tells him to back off or she’ll shoot. He grins. His hands grasp the air greedily in front of him, like a spasm. Cut to her face. Then to the gun. His face. She shoots. Wellman doesn’t coyly cut away this time. We see the man shot full in the face, his bloody hands up in front of it. He staggers oddly back to sit in the chair, surprised, slowly assuming the slumped grey position he was in when we came in; ham and eggs steaming in front of him as if he were going to eat breakfast and read the paper. It is gritty and sickeningly real. Then it’s over and we are back in the present, with the dead man sitting between the two badly shaken young people.
Photo #1: Nancy’s dress being torn away from her chest. Photo #2: The old man coming for her, grinning. Photo #3: The old man’s napkin still around his neck, hands coming for her (they actually wrap around storyteller Nancy’s head). Photo #4: Nancy screaming.
Jim has been hardened by the road. He’s lean and suspicious. He’s had to be. But he’s not cruel. She waits for him to say something. He’s shook up by the images left in his mind. Always thinking ahead, he asks if she is going to wait around for the cops to find the body. She comes out of her daze and looks around her, realizing that they will come for her. He asks if she can hop a freight. She says yes. In a moment of kindness, he tells her he’ll take her to an east bound train coming along any minute, but that he’s going the other way. He says there isn’t any reason why he should help her. She says she doesn’t know why he’s doing it either. He looks out the door, and then comes back, grabbing the food off the table, stuffing it into his kerchief.
They walk the tracks alone, no one left to care what happens to either of them. The train (a character in itself) stops for water a little way off. They wait behind the water tank for the conductor to turn away in a beautifully framed shot.
Jim urges her to run for it as the train speeds away. She’s too proud to be scared. She runs across an open field, as the train hurtles along. The outdoors is quite beautiful in it’s sepia tint, and it feels free, this moment of waving grass in the breeze. She’s fit and a good runner.
Nancy grabs the handle on the boxcar and leaps. We think she’s made it but she stumbles. She tumbles down the embankment, HARD. The train rattles off into the distance. She looks up out of the grass, rubbing her bruises. She doesn’t cry. Jim looks at her. He shakes his head. We can read his lips as he says,
This is only the first ten minutes of “Beggars of Life” and THIS is why I love Wellman. His spareness. The way he keeps things taut. His honesty. His speed. His economy. The way his camera is constantly moving, which makes his moments of stillness leap out at you. This film is about movement, and the act of running away. The camera catches little details, lifting up above characters’ heads to spy a wanted poster on a tree. It then sweeps back downward to the ground again. The first shot of the film is on the ground…a man’s feet, walking. We note how tired the characters are by shots of their feet. So when a character stops and stands his ground it is deeply meaningful.
Wellman spent a huge amount of time working out the tremendous, dangerous stunts for this movie, so they would look absolutely authentic, and they do. I think he was half in love with the train he used, which didn’t stop him from destroying part of it in a daring plunge over a cliff, almost taking his second unit cameraman with it. Wellman didn’t believe in under-cranking, a routine practice of the time that would speed up the film during exciting action sequences. He wanted the thrills to be genuine, shot in real time. The film is all the more enthralling because of Wellman’s insistence on verisimilitude. When Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen hop a train, it is clearly them.
He got real hobos to work for him and hired Jim Tully, a hobo himself and the man who wrote the original story of “Beggars of Life”, to work as a consultant. According to Louise Brooks, these men spent more time drunk than working. Wellman had to scramble out of a huge scrape with the law when his cast of hobos tore apart a pool hall in a fight with townspeople on location. When the cops came every man was home in bed, even if Wild Bill had to drag them there himself. He paid more attention to the trains than the actors. And yet…the acting here, from every cast member, is very very fine.
Wellman’s rebelliousness is legendary but I like how he purposefully starts with stereotypes in his films, then breaks them all to pieces. His heroines, they aren’t fussy or fluttery. His men are not nice guys. When a girl is attacked in a Wellman film, no nice heroic man steps in for her. It is life or death, kill or be killed. The women do the dirty work themselves, most often without help from, or even in spite of those men. They ultimately DECIDE. It’s a huge thing.
Because of this remarkable insistence on letting the lady choose, there is no sexism in Wellman’s work. His female characters are strong, unapologetic, straightforward. They take what happens to them and deal with it in the best way they know how, much as Wellman’s own mother dealt with an alcoholic husband and increasing poverty as her kids were growing up. She created a job for herself at a time when women were not accepted in the work force. She had to. It was that or starve. Like his mom, Wild Bill’s women are always complex human beings who make their own choices and design their own fates. Even when they seem to be stuck in near impossible situations, THEY choose; not their captors, not their lovers, not their leaders, nor their husbands. By the end of each film, the WOMEN are the heroes. THEY confront reality, and in the end, transcend their circumstances.
And Wellman’s men? Well, they aren’t all good, and they aren’t all bad. This makes for fascinating character studies. Wellman’s father went out and played baseball with his sons, helped them out as much as possible, despite having problems holding a job or his liquor. He was not vilified because of his problems. And perhaps this is why Wellman is so drawn to the underbelly of life…to the odd, the homeless and the poor. He understood first-hand what life is like for the man who has lost his way.
His family background, plus his experiences as a flying corps pilot in WWI helped make Wellman tough. But not too tough to cherish tenderness in those rare instances when he saw it. He used sentiment sparingly. It means more that way. The toughness makes the sentiment sweeter. This would make him the perfect director of the 1930’s, a difficult decade.
To me, “Beggars of Life” is the very first pre-code. I suppose I could go even further and say that it might even be the first neo-realist film….but let’s not get crazy! Pre-codes (films of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, before the production code of Hollywood officially self-censored its films) are generally known for their frank explorations of sex, violence and greed, and were a reflection of the upheaval everyday people experienced during the Depression. Old attitudes and strict mores suddenly seemed ridiculous when most people were without jobs or not getting enough food to eat. Pre-codes caught the uglier side of life, the things that people do to survive in an uncaring world. “Beggars of Life” is all about the ugly, the hardscrabble; pitting the caring against the uncaring, and sometimes reversing them unexpectedly. Wellman was a master of the pre-code because he knew that ugly side. He could capture it perfectly, but he made something beautiful out of it.
Even though “Beggars of Life” was released in 1928, one year before the stock market crash, it is a Depression-era film to me. It actually reminded me that there WERE poor people in America in the twenties before ‘The Great Depression’. Having just seen Josef von Sternberg’s “The Docks of New York” from the same year, I see some similarities in these two incredible films, but also a HUGE difference in the portrayals of the street and its people. At the start of “Docks…”, the main characters, the stoker and the prostitute, are hard as nails on the outside but retain one small ounce of heart on the inside. In “Beggars…” , Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen are hardened by the ugly violence perpetrated upon them. You can see them toughening up (as most characters in Wellman films do), getting stronger over the course of time. But they also FIND themselves, through hard times, hard work, and adversity.
Von Sternberg’s wharf in “The Docks of New York” is terrifically visualized, down to the dirt in its corners. The image of pecking seabirds outside grimy windows is insanely gorgeous and perfect as a metaphor, but Wellman’s dirt seems so real that it makes “Docks…” seem idealized or fake.
Photos #1 & #2: the great Docks of New York. Photos #3 & #4: from
Beggars of Life.
Elegant moodiness versus spartan simplicity.
Wellman doesn’t have time for grand metaphors. There is little fuss in Wellman’s vision, though both directors’ work is beautiful. Wellman’s is simply bleaker and quicker. He doesn’t mess with ‘artistic vision’ too much. His visuals are set up (and very nicely too, by cameraman Henry W. Gerrard) but then forgotten once we delve into CHARACTER. Character and connection is of utmost importance to Wellman and nothing, not visuals nor prettiness, is going to get in his way.
Von Sternberg’s emotion is apparent from the start. He’s swept away by his own operatic, expressionistic, stylized vision. Wellman is clinical and cold in his approach, documentary style. His landscapes are like Depression era photographs by Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange – plain, unambiguous, almost etched. They are brutal, basic, seemingly unposed, but with a great deal of thought and searing beauty in them. As elemental and unadorned as the camera work is, Wellman’s stories and characters are bursting with humanity and depth. Even his villains have depth, as we shall see.
Both directors rely heavily on nuance in the subtle emotional changes of a character’s expression. Every line in Betty Compson’s lovely face is exaggerated by von Sternberg’s gorgeous lighting in “The Docks of New York”. The emotion of the character is much more in her looks than in her emoting. Every sad, ironic twist in her crooked smile is a hurt she’s endured. (That being said, her acting is GREAT. The film is GREAT). In Wellman’s film, Brooks’ young face is a stunned blank, until emotional memory is brought forth and her mask crumbles to pieces, her mouth contorted into an upside down smile as she relates her awful story (really, I had NO idea Brooks could act this well, and I’ve seen the German films considered her best – “Pandora’s Box” and “Diary of a Lost Girl”). Then she stops crying, and her face closes again. Life is hard, but she doesn’t dwell and neither does Wellman. This leaves room for the audience to feel more for the characters than the characters do for themselves. What Wellman does do is note exchanged looks between characters, taking the time to establish subtle shifts in dynamics between them.
There is always the heavy threat of rape in the background of this film. It’s not suggestive or sexy. It’s unpleasant and dark. However, the two main characters keep hoping, keep moving forward, and that is what keeps you with them. It’s incredibly uplifting to watch. When Jim and Nancy settle down in an innocent looking haystack for a warm night’s sleep on the road, she automatically assumes he expects her body in return for his help and she falters. He sees her fear of that same abuse she has already suffered in the way she holds her collar tightly closed as she lies down beside him. It’s endearing, just as Jim’s dreamy talk of settling down is endearing. He catches Nancy by surprise with his poetic outlook and his hands-off approach. They sleep together – real sleep, cuddled up like puppies, fully clothed. She’s slowly learning to trust the gentle (and gentlemanly) tramp. Wellman, of course, can’t resist having Jim give a good long glance at her figure when she’s not looking during this tender scene, then roll his eyes at his own high-mindedness (humor helps leaven the sweetness here, but also transforms the harsher parts of the film).
She and Jim make a home together, not even knowing it IS a home. They become a team, connected from that first moment they heard one another in the shack. Jim is humanized by contact with the girl. He’s no angel or altruist, but something good in him keeps him looking after her. After hopping the west bound freight (Nancy pretending to be Jim’s brother, her hair up under a cap), they get caught. Jim is thrown off the moving train by a guard, with Nancy hanging off the edge unable to jump. The cruel guard bashes at her fingers with a club. Jim hollers at her desperately to jump before the train speeds up. She falls to the ground even harder than before, rolling down hill like a broken rag doll. Jim rushes up to see if she’s alive. Badly bruised, miraculously alive, and resourceful, Nancy proves her practicality by giving Jim the half sandwich she pocketed before the engineer threw her over the side. He looks at her with newfound respect. She’s canny, but also caring. This will prove to be their saving grace at the end of the film. Her brave stand for all they’ve earned together will change everything.
They end up at a hobo jungle, where she once again pretends to be Jim’s brother. Wellman ups the ante again, creating an even more dangerous scenario for the two innocents, as one of the hobos recognizes her as a woman and the lascivious “jungle” men close in.
The Arkansaw Snake, played with sleazy coldness by Bob Perry. Notice Roscoe Karns looking over his shoulder.
Wallace Beery as Oklahoma Red, is a TERRIFIC Wellman ‘heavy’, as good as I’ve ever seen him. He broke my heart and scared me. I suspect this was a turning point in his career, changing from bad guy to beloved popular star in the course of one film. In a cast deep with villains, Red is the worst, as mean as they come, and unpredictable. He’s the biggest threat to Jim and Nancy. He’s menacing but jolly, hateful then kindly, shrewd, calculating, backstabbing, ruthless, and utterly charming. He’s killed men before to get to the top…of the scum of the earth. And yet, you never know which way he’ll land. That is what I would call ‘The Wellman Touch’: there is hate in Wellman’s films, and violence, but there is also learning, which means hope.
Our first view of Beery as Oklahoma Red. The X’s on the keg of booze don’t bode well. One of the joys of the movie is noting the hobo symbols in the background, drawn on the walls of the train.
At the hobo jungle, Red challenges the old hobo leader, The Arkansaw Snake (played with chilling coldness by Bob Perry) to a fight. They both want Nancy, she’s the prize for whoever will be the new leader of this motley crew. Jim and Nancy appear to have no choices. Jim is held down by the gang while Nancy is manhandled. Wellman’s camera takes long looks at the old bulls’ burnt out faces.
They jocularly choose who is to be Nancy’s new ‘boyfriend’ in a mock trial. Layering the threats to Nancy and Jim keeps the suspense at a terrific high all the way through the film. Will Nancy hang for the murder of her foster dad? Will these poor kids get away before she’s caught by the police? Just when you think they are out of the frying pan, they are into the fire. Who will get them first? The cops, the Arkansaw Snake, Oklahoma Red? Or will they be the victim of the speeding trains themselves? Nancy herself makes the decision early on. She’s been watching and waiting during all the leering over her. Like all Wellman’s women, SHE chooses. She steps forward defiantly and, in a play for time, says:
“I claim the right to pick my own guardian!”
The hobos are taken aback by her assuredness. She looks at Red, then at The Snake, then picks the obviously weaker man – The Snake – knowing that Red won’t be able to handle that slight. She tells him that the Snake is twice the man he is. Red takes the bait, grinning. “The lady wants a fight.” Some of the hobos sit back happily grinning through missing teeth while the two ‘suitors’ beat the tar out of each other. Then all hell breaks loose as the other men, spoiling for a fight, join in. It’s comical and frightening at the same time. It’s a fight to the death for Red and the Snake. The train speeds along against the night sky.
Photo #1: Notice the name ‘Bill’ and an image (I think) of the director scrawled behind Beery’s shoulder. I love Wellman’s carefully-orchestrated-to-look-unrehearsed mayhem. Photo #2: Men drop in front of the camera from above, and fly across the screen. Photo #3: The fellow is a typical Wellman type…enjoying the fun while everyone else is getting pounded. Photo #4: The melee.
Just as Wellman’s heroines are not one dimensional, neither are his lowlifes, and Beery is no exception. Wellman likes to play with audience expectations, setting you up to think one thing, then going in the opposite direction, believably. His treatment of the hobos, those beggars of life in the title, is startlingly non-judgmental. Wellman is a humanist, refusing to pigeonhole a character because of his looks or station, or even because of his actions. The same grotesques, the diseased-looking beasts of men who were ready to gang rape Nancy, weep tenderly later on when Jim begs Oklahoma Red to spare her because she’s just a kid. Their better natures get to them. Once loyal, they remain loyal. Beery is not so easily won over. Wellman knows that people are infinitely changeable, unpredictable, depending on how strong their motives are. Wellman’s sense of fun, and his will to go against type help to put this over in the least sentimental way possible.
This shot of the hobos’ remorse really got to me. It reminds me very much of Wellman’s later film, The Ox Bow Incident.
Wellman’s overwhelming fairness to his cast of characters means that he also treats an African-American character, played by Edgar Washington, with equal weight and sensitivity. His character is instrumental in the finale of the film. It’s so unusual to see a featured Black player at this time, much less in a sympathetic role. I was completely blown away. There is no room for racism in Wellman’s viewfinder, though some of his meanest characters may show this repulsive trait. These bums are egalitarian in a way society folks aren’t. Wellman lets us know that there is little difference between the races when you are all at the bottom of the barrel. The hint is that maybe that’s the better place to be.
Here Edgar ‘Blue’ Washington protects his traveling buddy, a blind man who is slowly dying.
I don’t want to give away more of this twisty turny plot, or how the film ends, but I highly recommend the movie to you. I’ve only just touched on the story. There is plenty more to it, high speed chases, a fight on top of the train, and Wellman’s wonderful, fast-paced fluid direction. The element of surprise is most important to your enjoyment of this movie so I won’t go on. I WILL tell you, nothing happens as expected. Tenderness and emotion rule in the most vile places, between characters who should hate one another. Bravery, self-sacrifice and love flow from characters that you least expect it from. It’s divine.
Wellman knew that a shot of just one eye looking up in the dark or over someone’s shoulder can be more expressive than all the avant-garde production design or fantastic sets in the world. Close-ups are all the more meaningful in Wellman films because they are rare, just as sentiment is. Wellman didn’t like to use close-ups, and saved them up for extremely special moments. He knew that deep emotion is more effective when it is partially hidden…we lean into the screen to try to get closer to it. I find Wellman the most engaged and effective of directors. If von Sternberg is the Faulkner of the screen, then Wellman is the Hemingway, paring down his work ’till only the essential remains. And that boiled down essence packs a hell of a punch.
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Here is a restored trailer of “Beggars of Life”
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CineMaven’s Note: Photo from Laura Wagner > Pre-Code Hollywood (1929-34): Sin on Celluloid on FaceBook:
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You can find a copy of “Beggars of Life” at Grapevine Video.
Go to: ( GUEST ESSAYS ) for Wendy’s Bio
( H O M E )