While Louise Brooks may be best known for the two movies she made in Germany with G.W. Pabst, her last American silent movie, Beggars of Life (1928), has too often been overlooked. Wallace Beery got top billing since he was a bigger star, and Louise’s character is listed in the credits as only “the girl.” (You have to refer to the original stage version to learn that her name is Nancy.) However, Beery doesn’t appear until halfway into the film, and it’s Louise’s story from beginning to end.
As the story begins, Nancy has just killed her abusive step-father in self defense. Richard Arlen plays Jim, a hobo who comes begging a meal at the farmhouse only to find the farmer sitting dead at the dinner table and Nancy disguising herself as a boy. There is no suggestion that Nancy might get a fair trial, and Jim quickly suggests that they leave before anyone else shows up. Not being a fool, he grabs the dinner off the dead man’s plate before running out the door.
Rather than romanticizing life on the run, the movie presents the open road as a lonely and dangerous place—especially for a young woman. The pair are thrown from a moving train and chased from a farmer’s field. Then things only go from bad to worse when a band of hobos discover that Nancy is a girl—and all the while, the police continue to close in.
Beggars is both a gripping drama and a gritty piece of social realism. Much of it was filmed on location, and many of the extras are played by real hobos. Louise even performed her own stunts, which include hopping on and off of moving trains. (She may not have been acting when she seems to be limping at the end of one scene.) Director William Wellman (locally born in Brookline) spared no pains in making the movie as realistic as possible, and his efforts paid off. Beggars of Life remains vibrant and compelling more than eighty years after it was first released
Beggars of Life is currently available on volume three of “The Rare Films of Louise Brooks” released by Classic Video Streams. Unfortunately, the only surviving print of the movie is in rather shape, and we can only hope that someone with the resources to do a proper restoration will release a cleaner copy.