Friday, November 20, 2020

William A. Wellman | Beggars of Life

it must be love

by Douglas Messerli

Jim Tully (screenplay, based on his autobiography, and Maxwell Andersen based on his play, Outside Looking In), William A. Wellman (director) Beggars of Life / 1928

Kino Lorber’s release in 2017 of William Wellman’s 1928 silent classic Beggars of Life is to be celebrated for a number of reasons. On the one hand, a film with actors Louise Brooks (as The Girl, Nancy) and Wallace Beery (Oklahoma Red), along with lesser acting legends such as Richard Arlen (The Boy, Jim), Bob Perry (The Aransaw Snake), and Blue Washington (Black Mose)—represented in a nearly flawless cinematic restoration—which certainly helps us to reevaluate these figures. Surely this was one of Beery’s best movies, and some claim to prefer Brooks in this role over W. P. Pabst’s iconic creation of her as Lulu in Pandora’s Box of a year later. For me Brooks will always be the spoiled lesbian bad girl of the German cinema, but she is absolutely fascinating here as a kind of hobo-in-drag wanted for murder.

     Beggars is also a wonderful adventure and love story, with scenes of potential rape, child abuse, and numerous other pre-Hays “daze” subjects, including a couple of plots that suggest not only the cross-dressing of  Nancy, but a subtle queer tale almost hidden by all the other genres that are played out through Wellman’s brilliant direction. Indeed, except for the police posse who follow writers Jim Tully’s and Maxwell Anderson’s characters throughout the work, one might describe every figure in this film as already being an outsider in the year just prior to the Great Depression, which would soon create an entire society of “forgotten” and alienated men and women in American life.

     In one of the worst years I have experienced in my life (2020), seeing this film along with several other masterworks of cinema almost redeemed the general political, social, medical, and personal horrors that I, along with so many others, endured, and which might well prefigure a financial disaster close to that of 1929.

      This film ends where many others might have ended, a dead man still sitting at his breakfast table, discovered by a hobo (Arlen) who is so busy salivating over the diner’s steak and eggs that he hardly notices that the man has just been shot and killed. And when he does discover that fact, he is equally surprised to meet the murderer, a young woman (Brooks) who has already changed into a male ensemble of a jacket, trousers, and flat newsboy-like cap, which when pulled down hides her Dutch-bob and bangs, camouflaging her sex to make her a figure of androgyny that Brooks would maintain throughout her career. She is accordingly caught the very moment she was about to attempt an escape; but fortunately, the intruder, despite his mock disinterest in her involvement in the death of the man before him, is a caring and empathetic being who no intention of reporting her the authorities.

      When asked, almost disinterestedly, why she has murdered the victim, Nancy explains, in a long beautifully directed scene, that she is a foster child adopted by the man who a long while has attempted to carnally attack her which was met, this time, with her resistance and a gun.

     While the Girl describes the situation, Wellman portrays it visually by creating a montage that overlays the present action forcing his audience to put her past actions in the context of the present moment which, given the transitory condition of her listener, prefigures the future which she must now face: a world set in motion that can end only through what appears to be her inevitable death. From that moment on, once the whirlwind of her past actions is locked into the present, we know any future, particularly the dream she soon after expresses of living in a quiet place, “a place to be clean in, a place to call home” is almost unattainable. 

        She lies about having previously hopped a train, encouraging Jim to argue that she should move East—symbol of the entire country’s past—while he plans on traveling West, to the future. But watching her fail to be able to hold on and board the freight, he has no choice but take her with him, thus insuring his own lack of a future as well, which becomes a theme throughout the work. Once you’ve committed murder, all of her hobo acquaintances remind the both of them, there is no future; she, and now he for helping her, will be tracked down and put to death.

       By the time they are brutally tossed off the freight train they’ve finally succeeded in boarding, there are already wanted posters describing her as a girl dressed in boy’s clothing. Metaphorically speaking she has already been transformed into a fugitive male, an outsider who, to most viewers’ eyes looks like a male. And it is this new identity which threatens to trap her into a being who no longer can be allowed to live within the normative society for which she longs.

       The odd couple take cover for the night in the commonly employed signifier of illicit sex which, when not taken advantage of, suggests something may be wrong with the male or the female. Certainly, Oklahoma!’s Ado Annie would never have accepted the “no” upon which Nancy insists.

     As critic Gordon Thomas writes in Bright Lights Film Journal:

 “Necessarily the haystack provides tight quarters, and once again Brooks, lying sardine-can intimate next to Jim, projects an unease at the physical closeness that modulates into a relaxed recognition of Jim’s inner rectitude. For the film’s entire running time, Brooks’ character is defined by anticipating and dodging the threat of rape, yet with no moralizing intertitles (of the sort Griffith, say, would deem necessary), the film implicitly grants that Nancy’s murder of her foster father is a justified response to his abuse of her. Was a premise like this only possible in the pre-Code days?

     By falling asleep in the hay while keeping his hands to himself, Jim passes his chivalric test with flying colors....”

     What this scene also establishes is that Jim and Nancy are not only outsiders for her being a murderer and he the man who abets her as well as for their role as wayfarers, but they are “queer” in respect to their being absolute innocents, a word that might be applied to only two other characters in this narrative work.

      Walking the rails for the next day, their shoes and toes aching, Jim finally spots a group of hobos around a fire about to share their dinner. It’s a “jungle” Jim names it, a hobo gathering spot. But it’s also a “jungle” in other ways, this one filled with testosterone-filled beasts who have had no sex for ages. They also are not terribly receptive to intruders who turn up at the very moment they are about to serve up a wild herb and onion goulash.

      Here we first catch a glimpse of Black Mose (Washington) and the white boy he is gently attempting to nurse back to health, Lame Hoppy (Roscoe Karns). We know nothing of the reason for Hoppy’s inability to walk and why he is ill, but Wellman draws our attention to the pair almost immediately after he has introduced the stewing pot and the hobos hovered nearby.

      Here, apparently, the hobos are ruled by The Arkansaw Snake, who from a seated position watches over the cooks’ ministrations. Into this “jungle” arrives a jolly singing Bacchus, hefting a large barrel of whiskey while singing a barroom song. Appearing just in time for dinner and apparently willing to share his bounty, he is a welcome figure despite the sneering Snake, who is about to strike out at the joyful intruder until he hears his name, Oklahoma Red (Beery), which sets terror into almost all the hobos, including Snake.

      Having created a new pecking order, Red invites all to share his barrel of White Mule. The men rush forward, totally ignoring their soup. Seeing that Nancy and Jim remain behind, Red invites them to share, but Jim intervenes, reporting that his “brother” is feeling sick, thus putting the two of them into a very parallel situation as Black Mose and Lame Hoppy.

      Yet Red insists that they both imbibe, and when Nancy bends to fill her cup, revealing her shapely ass to the hobo tribe, Snake recognizes something he has not seen in an awfully long while. Thomas, writing is 2017, nicely expresses the shock of this scene:

 “It’s a surprising moment of coarseness in this 90-year-old film but at the same time a reminder of what the movies could get away with pre-Code; it would be decades, I’m guessing, before you’d see a male character so brazenly grasp (if only visually) a female butt, particularly in the buns-up position Louise [Brooks] offers here.”

      Calling attention to her feminine derrière, Snake and others are about to lay their claim until Jim shows them the wanted poster he has pulled down from a tree. The men, now wanting nothing to do with her, are ready to let her go until Red intervenes suggesting they permit them to catch the next train out. But that is also the train all the hobos intend to hop, knowing that with her aboard the posse will be on their trails as well.

     In his intervention, Red is also making his claim to the woman. And when they all find themselves in a freight car together, he quickly sets up a Kangaroo Court so that he can evict Jim and make Nancy his own. If Nancy has previously been seemingly passive, she suddenly comes into her own as Jim is about to be thrown off the moving train, probably to his death, she challenging the presiding comic judge, Red, to allow her a voice in the matter as well, choosing Snake as her “guardian.” The ploy works perfectly, as the two, Snake and Red, determine to battle it out, with the other hobos joining in. Only a warning that the police are heading toward the train to search for the girl stops the battles.

     Thinking fast, Red finds a way to unhook the cable connecting their car to the others and steers it along mountainous embankments until he can stop it at a safe spot where most of the hobos scatter, while Jim, Nancy, Mose and Hoppy find safety in a nearby cabin to which Red directs them.

      Left alone for a while, Jim and Nancy brief celebration of their own salvation also makes it clear that Jim may not be the best man to protect her from travails ahead, which, moreover, will further endanger his life as well. Certainly, from this moment on Nancy dominates the film, leaving Jim to remain in the periphery as she and Red negotiate the next steps. 

     Red briefly disappears, as does Black Mose who leaves to search for wild roots and other edibles to feed his ailing friend. Soon after his departure, Nancy and Jim perceive that Hoppy has died, and we suddenly recognize that during the several melees we’ve been witnessing that we have ignored the obvious. If Nancy the girl, dressed as a boy, has fallen in love with the boy Jim, who in the process has become more passive, Bose and Hoppy have been there all along as a kind of loving couple which has no name. We can’t define them as having a homosexual relationship, since we have witnessed no sexuality between them. Yet, Mose has touched and stroked Hoppy’s body more than other beings in this film including Jim and Nancy. And even if we were to describe Mose’s connection to the lame and dying man as simply a deep friendship for which we have no context, it is a far remove from the stereotypical servant-master relationship which in 1928 we might certainly have expected. Almost as radical as Jim’s declaration in Huckleberry Finn, “Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!” Mose has been literally carrying and caring for the lame white man in plain sight without our truly recognizing it for what it is: a love deeper than any other this film portrays.

     Perhaps I should back away from the plural assumption, and explain it as something I realized only at this point in the film, a few minutes away from the scene in which Red returns with a stolen automobile and women’s clothing for Nancy. By demanding that she cross-dress yet again, Red is certain that they can together drive through police lines without them ever imagining that she is the sought-for murderess.

     While she dresses, he takes Jim outside in an attempt to argue some sense into him, making it clear that “the Boy” is not the right person to guide this woman into safety. By sticking with him, Nancy and Jim both will continue to endanger each other.

      When we finally lay our eyes upon the feminized Nancy, dressed in an old-fashioned polka-dotted sunbonnet that hides Brooks’ famed bangs and a frilly edged dress that reveals the outlines of her modest breasts, I’d argue any male would recognize that the look is all wrong for her— despite the fact that Red and Jim both appear smitten by the sudden change. Nancy, I would argue, was far sexier as a girl hiding out in the male body. The Brooks mystique relies entirely on her playing a gamin, a pubescent boy who hangs out on the streets or in the living rooms of wealthy men whom she will soon destroy. We could honestly believe her as a murderer in her  hobo getup, but as a Sooner pioneer woman she has become infantilized, a woman with little but clean and soothing prayers to offer. She may have found her “quiet place.” but at what cost we can only ask. Oddly, I would argue, she looks more in drag in her dotted sunbonnet than in her newspaper boy’s hat.

     Critic Thomas agrees:

“By 1928, whether widely recognized or not, it was all there, that Brooksian air of non-submissive, yet eager to wield, sexuality, and I’d like to think Wellman could see it when he had Beery, sporting a knowing leer, hands the dress to her.... For us...the dowdy regalia clashes comically and somehow poignantly with Brooks’ – forget the character’s – sharply projected aura of sophistication and native intelligence.”

      Yet when Red offers her himself instead of her now equally infantilized Jim—a team which can only remind us of the original Barbi (1959) and Ken (1961) dolls, mannequins of American normalcy—she declares she will not leave without Jim. And, as suddenly it hit me that Black Mose and lame Hoppy were a loving couple, Wallace Beery as Red, brilliantly acts out his remarkable revelation: “I’ve heard about it, but I never seen it before... It must be love.”

     So too, had I just previously recognized the relationship between the two couples that Wellman has almost flawlessly intertwined in his story. Mose and Hoppy were, if nothing else, two men who depended upon and loved each other. That a black and white queer relationship could be flashed across the screen in a 1928 is astounding.

     What’s far stranger is that Red, allowing the loving couple to escape in the car he has stolen for his previously nefarious motives, determines to further help the couple escape by using the body of Mose’s dead friend as a kind of decoy to put the police off of their choice. Dressing Hoppy up like Nancy in her hobo attire, with the help of Mose he sets the stranded train car afire at the very moment the police move their dragnet forward in what remains of the original train. Mose jumps to safety, but Red stays to see the operation finished and gets shot in the process, dying eventually to save the escaping couple on their way to Canada.

      If nothing else, we can hope that in the grand conflagration of Hoppy’s body, Mose might be able to perceive the event as his loved one’s funeral pyre ceremony that sets afire the dead man aboard his favorite mode of travel like a Viking hero, in this case a freight car rather than a langskip (war boat).

      Not since as a kid after I saw Vertigo in a large old movie palace in Manchester, Iowa, have I watched a movie immediately over again just for the joy of the experience.

Los Angeles, November 20, 2020

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (November 2020).



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