Beggars of Life (1928) Blu-ray Review: All Aboard

Although it was technically the first moving picture for Paramount to include a newly (however crude) developed invention known as “sound,” William A. Wellman’s 1928 classic Beggars of Life was never intended to be classified as a “talkie” by its creators. The year before its theatrical release, Warner Bros. unveiled the groundbreaking Al Jolson musical The Jazz Singer, effectively calling out to the industry to bring the curtain down on the Silent Era. With the forthcoming medium approaching them like a runaway train, Wellman reluctantly went along with the studio’s request to incorporate sound into his project.

Alas, the proverbial runaway train would wind up knocking the film off the rails of history either way. Now, nearly 90 years later after its theatrical debut, Kino Lorber is proud to release Beggars of Life to Blu-ray the way it was supposed to be seen. That is to say, “Seen, but not heard.” Starring Louise Brooks, one of cinema’s most seductive temptresses (and who was just a hop, skip, and jump down the tracks away from appearing in another industry game-changer, G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box the following year), Wellman’s Beggars of Life depicts the life of two young people joining forces as they take to ridin’ the rails.

For our Miss Brooks, her character ‒ listed simply in the credits as “The Girl” ‒ is on the run from the law after killing her sexually-abusive foster father in self-defense. Discovered shortly after committing the act by a wandering hobo fittingly known here as “The Boy” (and played by Island of Lost Souls‘ own Richard Arlen), The Girl dons male clothing in order to evade police, joining her newfound friend, even if he isn’t terribly thrilled in becoming her accessory after the fact like that. But at least he doesn’t want to rape her, unlike the various other tramps and hobos the pair will soon encounter as they hit the rails.

One such individual later appears in the film, played to the hilt by top-billed future Oscar winner Wallace Beery. Cast as a hobo legend known as Oklahoma Red, Beery ‒ one of the few Silent actors to make a successful transition to sound (to say nothing of the notion he very well may have been responsible for the death of the man who created The Three Stooges, Ted Healy) ‒ promptly takes over the movie once he arrives, claiming his godliness to fellow tramps at a hobo jungle before making the transformation from loud-mouthed drifter to clear and present danger. Especially when you see the way he looks at Brooks. You don’t need sound for that!

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg in this compelling and beautifully photographed character drama, as loosely based off of Jim Tully’s novel of the same name. Featuring actual vagrants in supporting roles and a number of stimulating sequences both off the rails and on (watch Louise Brooks perform her own stunts!), Beggars of Life makes a triumphant return to the rails via a new HD presentation from Kino Lorber. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect (or whereabouts) ratio and in, Kino gives us Wellman’s original intended silent version of the movie, as restored from 35mm elements courtesy the George Eastman Museum.

A 2.0 DTS-HD MA soundtrack for Beggars of Life features a newly-recorded score by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, which incorporates a few licks from the original 1928 Paramount cue-sheet. Two distinctively different audio commentaries ‒ the first from William Wellman, Jr. and a secondary track from Louise Brooks Society co-founder Thomas Gladysz ‒ are included with this release, neither of which disappoints. While Wellman’s track covers informative ground from an older, classy perspective, Gladysz’ commentary tends to dive into juicier tidbit about the history of the film and its makers.

An eight-page booklet featuring an essay on the production by Nick Pinkerton, wraps up yet another stellar rediscovery from the Silent Era which is not only worthy of your attention, but is deserving of your affection, too.

Highly Recommended.

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Luigi Bastardo

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