Beggars of Life (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

September 20, 2017 by  

With the popularity of Louise Brooks, there is no denying that “Beggars of Life” is a must-buy, must-own title.  And for silent film fans, the film is entertaining, suspenseful and action-packed. May you be a Louise Brooks, Wallace Beery or Richard Arlen fan, I can faithfully say that this silent film on Blu-ray is highly recommended!

Images courtesy of © 1928 Paramount Pictures. 2017 KINO LORBER. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Beggars of Life


DURATION: 81 Minutes

BLU-RAY INFORMATION: 1080p (1:33:1 Aspect Ratio), B&W, 2.0 Stereo, English Intertitles

COMPANY: Kino Lorber

RATED: Not Rated

RELEASE DATE: August 22, 2017

Based on the Book by Jim Tully

Directed by William A. Wellman

Adapatation by Benjamin Glazer

Produced by Allan Dwan

Executive Producer: Adolph Zukor

Music Performed by Jeff Rapsis

Cinematography by Harold Rosson


Wallace Beery as Oklahoma Red

Louise Brooks as Nancy – The Girl

Richard Arlen as Jim – The Boy

Blue Washington as Black Mose

Kewpie Morgan as Skinny

Andy Clark as Skelly

Mike Donlin as Bill

Roscoe Karns as Lame Hoppy

Bob Perry as The Arkansaw Snake

An American silent film classic, Beggars of Life (1928) stars Louise Brooks as a train-hopping hobo who dresses like a boy to survive. After escaping her violent stepfather, Nancy (Brooks) befriends kindly drifter Jim (Richard Arlen). They ride the rails together until a fateful encounter with the blustery Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) and his rambunctious band of hoboes, leading to daring, desperate conflict on top of a moving train. Based on the memoir of real-life hobo Jim Tully, and directed with adventuresome verve by William Wellman (The Ox-Bow Incident), Beggars of Life is an essential American original.

From legendary filmmaker William A. Wellman (“A Star is Born”, “The Ox-Bow Incident”, “The Public Enemy”) comes his romantic comedy silent film “Beggars of Life”.

A film that was released in 1928 as a silent film but it was considered lost until an incomplete copy was found in Czechoslovakia.

And now the film will be released as a silent film with English intertitles and a musical score compiled and performed by the Mont Alto Motion Pictures Orchestra, who employed selections from the original 1928 Paramount cue-sheet.

“Beggars of Life”  is based on an autobiography by Jim Tully and would star Wallace Beery (“Grand hotel”, “The Champ”, “The Lost World”), Louise Brooks (“Pandora’s Box”, “Diary of a Lost Girl”, “Miss Europe”), Richard Arlen (“Wings”, “Island of Lost Souls”, “Alice in Wonderland”) and Blue Washington (“Haunted Gold”, “The Butler”).

The film is known as being Louise Brooks best American film and also a film that would feature a Black actor, Blue Washington and one of the first films that would feature a man of color in the opening credits which was not common during that era.

And now the 1928 film will be available on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber.

The film begins with a hungry homeless man named Jim (Richard Arlen) wondering into someone’s property, begging for the owner to please give him food and he would work hard for it.

When Jim sees someone sitting but not answering, he walks inside to find the man shot in the head and dead.  Seeing the deceased man startles him and he hears a young woman named Nancy (portrayed by Louise Brooks) scurrying around.

When Jim asks if she killed the man, she admits to it.  She explains that she was an orphan and taken in by the family but as she got older, the man would sexually assault her and having had enough of being raped, she took his firearm and shot him with it.

The two decide to escape and Nancy disguises herself as a young boy.  Meanwhile, Jim feels he just wants to help her get on the train, so she can get to Canada.  Unfortunately, getting on a train is not so easy for Nancy and she sprains her ankle.  Jim ends up taking care of Nancy and the next day, as they swipe some pastries from a bakery car, he sees a wanted photo of Nancy for murder.

As the two walk, they end up walking into a homeless camp, they meet the blunt and fearsome homeless man that goes by Oklahoma Red (portrayed by Wallace Beery) and they meet gang leader, The Arkansaw Snake (portrayed by Bob Perry).  When the Snake observes Jim and Nancy, he realizes that Nancy is a woman and not a man and wants to have his time with her.  But as Jim tries to come to her rescue, he is overtaken by the other homeless men and is held back.

But Jim ends up showing everyone to Nancy’s wanted poster and everyone steps back, worried about being around a murderer and not wanting to draw authorities to them, so they prefer to distance themselves away from her.

But when the police arrive, they see Nancy and as they are to stop her, all the homeless step in and Oklahoma Red handcuffs them all together, so they are unable to escape.

Oklahoma Red helps Nancy and Jim  but Red also wants to be with Nancy.

Will Nancy be able to escape to Canada with the authorities chasing after her?  Can Jim protect her?


“Beggars of Life” is presented in 1080p High Definition (1:33:1 aspect ratio) and is presented in black and white. The quality of the film on Blu-ray is very good in terms of clarity and sharpness.  Considering the film’s age, I didn’t notice any major film warping and while there are scratches that can be seen on various frames, the fact that this film has been lost and was recently discovered, is a major plus and I’m sure glad that what was found is still a good print that was restored from 35 mm film elements preserved by the George Eastman Museum.


“Beggars of Life” is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and the music presented for this release is a wonderful score compiled and performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, employing selections from the original 1928 Paramount cue-sheet.


“Beggars of Life” comes with the following special feature:

  • Audio Commentary – Featuring audio commentary by William Wellman, Jr.
  • Audio Commentary #2 – Featuring audio commentary by Thomas Gladysz, founding director of the Louise Brooks Society.


“Beggars of Life” comes with a booklet essay by film critic Nick Pinkerton.

When it comes to Louise Brooks, many are familiar with her European films directed by George Wilhelm Pabst and of course, her reputation.

Considered an actress that was ahead of her time, she took on roles that were portrayed sexuality that was not common for the era.  She was an intellectual, some considered her a snob, rumors were spread all over Hollywood that she slept with all her actors and facing so much in the U.S., she no doubt developed a tough skin.

For the most part, going to Europe did wonders for her career, especially post-posthumously such as “Pandora’s Box” or “Diary of a Lost Girl” are well-revered today.  But back then, while great films, her loathing of Hollywood and being denied by Paramount for a promised raise was enough for her to leave America which would lead her to become blacklisted.

Prior to moving away from America though, while starring in several silent light comedies and flapper films, it was “Beggars of Life” that would be considered her best American film.

Surprisingly, considering that she never thought about the film positively and not being faithful to Jim Tully’s book, which the film was an adaptation of Tully’s autobiography of the same name.

Nor did Louise Brooks get along with her co-star Richard Arlen and also director William A. Wellman, it’s a sign of a good actress that she was able to take on the role and give a solid performance as murderer on the run, Nancy.

But the tone of the film is set as Nancy was an orphan who was repeatedly raped by the man who took her in and tired of being assaulted, she shot and killed him.  And now she just wants to be free.  Free and happy and Jim, wants to help her escape to Canada but he needs to disguise her as a boy as he knows authorities will be after her.

The film broke new ground, no surprise as William A. Wellman was in an experimentation mode.  You have a woman dressed and disguised like a young man which no doubt, went against Hollywood norm and upset a number of people.  You also have Blue Washington, a Black actor in a major role and also being featured in the opening credits.  While Washington is not featured during the first half of the film, he becomes more prominent towards the second half of the film as a homeless man trying to take care of another sick homeless man.

But along with Louise Brooks, you also have to talk about the two prominent male actors.  Richard Arlen is the main protagonist that is paired with Louise Brooks as the homeless man named Jim who tries to help Nancy escape to Canada.  At first, he just wants to help her get to Canada on train but when he sees that she is not experienced to do much, let alone jumping on trains, he ends up helping her and protecting her from the homeless men who want to take advantage of her.

And of course, the actor who gets top billing, Wallace Beery as Oklahoma Red.  A homeless man who seems like he would be the antagonist, the alpha male among many homeless men, a man with a reputation that some fear him and a homeless man who also carries a heavy wooden barrel wherever he goes.  And he has his eyes on Nancy and wanting her to be his.  But he wants to naturally help her escape as well, just with him and not Jim.

Beery had appeared in many major films and while at that time, it makes sense for him to get top billing and be known as the star of the film.  Since the release of the film and the escalation of Louise Brooks as an actress and has received recognition as an early cinema sex symbol, she has also received respect for her independence as a woman.  Defying Hollywood, defying the norm and some may even make comparisons to modern day stars such as Madonna.

And part of the mystique that surrounds Louise Brooks is that there is much written about her, but yet many of her films are lost.  Fortunately, her key silent films filmed in Europe such as “Pandora’s Box” and “Diary of a Lost Girl” have survived.  And of course, her American film “Beggars of Life” that was discovered in 2016, has finally been released and giving many fans a chance to enjoy an early American film starring Louise Brooks.

And earlier this year, 23 minutes of a long missing 1927 Brooks film, “Now We’re in the Air” was found in the Czech Republic and is another significant film in Brooks’ oeuvre as four of the films she had made in 1927 were considered lost.  And this World War One comedy also features Wallace Beery, and Brooks in two supporting roles.

Going back to “Beggars of Life”, it’s important to note that while this film was released as an early sound film, the original sound recordings have not been found and thus was released as a silent film.  And while it is sad that we don’t have the original audio, considering that this was an earlier film that experimented with sound, the film works much more effectively as a silent and the score by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra was fantastic.

Picture quality on this Blu-ray release was digitally restored from 35mm film elements preserved by the George Eastman Museum and they did a magnificent job.  Scratches are not so evident and there is no major damage or film warping at all.  And you get two audio commentaries and a essay booklet included as well.

With the popularity of Louise Brooks, there is no denying that “Beggars of Life” is a must-buy, must-own title.  And for silent film fans, the film is entertaining, suspenseful and action-packed. May you be a Louise Brooks, Wallace Beery or Richard Arlen fan, I can faithfully say that this silent film on Blu-ray is highly recommended!


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