Classic cinema: Beggars of Life (1928), Barbican Centre

In the Barbican’s long-running Silent Film and Music series, the silent version of William Wellman’s 1928 feature ‘Beggars of Life’ was shown yesterday with accompaniment by that peerless pianist Neil Brand, and the skiffle band The Dodge Brothers (, comprising Mike Hammond, Mark Kermode, Aly Hirji and Alex Hammond).

‘Beggars of Life’ stars Wallace Beery, Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen, and was made in both silent and part-talkie versions. It is the story of an abused female orphan who kills her tormentor and then while on the run joins up with a gang of rough hoboes who move around the country by hopping on frieght trains and live by stealing what they can get. Brooks is the girl killer who, disguised as a boy and with the help of Arlen’s hungry tramp, hopes to cross the border to Canada and get the law off her trail.

First billed but with a fairly small (if significant) part, Wallace Beery is the violent hobo (‘Oklahoma Red’) who despite initially appearing to be another dangerous predator, eventually shows himself to have a soft centre. You can see why he would go on to have a lucrative career in the days of talking pictures.

As for the music, well, we were warned at the start that it would be largely improvised, and so it may well have been, but it fitted the pictures being projected so well that it was a real marriage of the two artforms. Even using the occasional song (which I don’t really like when I’m trying to watch a film, feeling that the words detract from the plot and the performances) didn’t spoil the mood and in fact in a couple of places worked extremely well.

The film itself is not that well-known, with its only DVD releases to date being from public domain specialists Grapevine and Loving the Classics, both utilising poorer prints than the one projected today at the Barbican. Despite the high standing of Louise Brooks amongst silent cinema officiandos, it isn’t the film you immediately think of when she is mentioned, as ‘Diary of a Lost Girl’ and ‘Pandora’s Box’ are much better known. Despite her boy disguise, she is still recognisably Brooks in ‘Beggars of Life’ with the distinctive haircut and dark eyes making an appearance. Richard Arlen is less watchable as his performance harks back to the traditional silent days. He’s perhaps best known these days for ‘Wings’, another late silent, but he did go on to appear in sound films up until the 1970s.

Is it worth your time to seek out? Yes. But try to catch a screening with this particular accompaniment as it showcases five fine musicians as well as the film itself.