An impressive early part-talkie, BEGGARS OF LIFE expresses a brilliant naturalism in its portrayal of hoboes. Richard Arlen is a hungry, unkempt wanderer drawn into a country house in search of a hot meal. Peering through the dusty screen door he sees an older man sitting motionless at a
dinner table. Upon closer inspection, he finds the man a victim of a gunshot wound to the head. Demure Louise Brooks enters and explains she killed the man, her adopted guardian, when he tried to rape her. Dressed in boy's clothes, she leaves with Arlen in hopes of hopping a freight train to
safety. They settle down in a hobo camp presided over by Robert Perry. Then Perry's rival, Wallace Beery, arrives, takes over the camp after a struggle, and expresses his desire for Brooks. Evading a trio of detectives who are after Brooks, the hoboes board a train that heads into the mountains.
Beery holds "court," sentencing Arlen to be thrown off the train and granting himself exclusive rights to Brooks, touching off a brawl among the hoboes. The detectives have boarded the train and are close to capturing Brooks when Beery pulls a coupling pin, separating the car from the rest of the
train. The runaway car plummets downhill before coming safely to a stop. Brooks and Arlen, with Washington and an injured friend, take refuge in a nearby cabin. Returning with an automobile and feminine attire for Brooks, Beery attempts to convince her to leave with him. He eventually recognizes
the deep love Brooks and Arlen have for each other and allows them to escape in his auto. In the meantime the injured hobo has died. Beery dresses the corpse in Brooks' discarded "boy" clothes, props it up on a lumber car, and sets the car on fire just as the detectives arrive. They gun down
Beery, but he has succeeded in duping them into believing that Brooks also has perished. Many miles away, Brooks and Arlen head for safety.
While a silent version of the film does exist, the sound version of BEGGARS OF LIFE made significant inroads in recording techniques. According to David O. Selznick, it was William Wellman who first used a microphone on a boom, despite the insistence of sound engineers that mikes had to be
stationary. Brooks never again equalled the success she achieved in BEGGARS OF LIFE (her German films for G.W. Pabst, PANDORA'S BOX and DIARY OF A LOST GIRL, are legendary, however), mainly because she had no desire to become a Hollywood starlet. Wellman later cast her in PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), but
when she chose to take a trip to New York instead, the part went to Jean Harlow.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: An impressive early part-talkie, BEGGARS OF LIFE expresses a brilliant naturalism in its portrayal of hoboes. Richard Arlen is a hungry, unkempt wanderer drawn into a country house in search of a hot meal. Peering through the dusty screen door he sees an o… (more)