After being overwhelmed by William Wellman’s Wings (1927), I wanted to see another of his few surviving silent films. This is a haunting tale of tramps wandering through a shadowy underworld, starring Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery.
Although this film was made before the Great Depression, it looks forward to later Wellman movies like Wild Boys of the Road (1933) in focusing on the outcasts of society and showing poor people’s desperate struggle to survive. I’m not going to go into as much detail about this movie as I did about Wings, but I definitely think it’s another masterpiece – and I’m saddened that it is so little known.
The film is a powerful melodrama loosely based on Jim Tully’s tramp autobiography Beggars of Life, which had already been successfully adapted as a Broadway play Outside Looking In, by Maxwell Anderson, starring Charles Bickford and James Cagney. I’m not sure how close the film is to the play – Anderson isn’t mentioned as a source at the imdb – but one review of the play I found does mention the mock trial scene, which is also a key section of the film, and I have the impression Bickford and Cagney’s characters on stage must have been very close to those played by Beery and Arlen in the film.
There have been showings at cinemas in recent years, so there must be a good print in existence, but the DVD I got hold of is a dark and grainy video transfer, where whole scenes are almost impossible to see . Yet, even watching the film under these conditions, the moody cinematography by Henry W Gerrard is striking, with the characters glimpsed in a space of light in the middle of the screen surrounded by shadows. The night scenes are tinted blue and the day scenes red (this seems to have been done in a lot of silent films), adding to the atmosphere.
The most striking part of the film is the first few minutes. Arlen’s character, the tramp Jim, is indeed seen “on the outside looking in”, hungrily peering through a window at a man slumped over a table set with a lavish breakfast. He walks in and asks for something to eat, but is ignored – and eventually realises that the man has been shot dead. A moment later a young girl (Louise Brooks) walks down the stairs and sees him. He is about to explain that he isn’t the killer, when she tells him that the dead man is her adoptive father and she killed him after he tried to rape her – as she speaks, the events she is recounting are seen happening in a shadowy form behind her, a brilliant experimental sequence which I would love to have seen more clearly.
Jim and the girl, Nancy (she is never named in the film, but her name is given as Nancy in the cast list) decide to flee before she is arrested for murder. She disguises herself as a boy and they try to jump on to a freight train, but she falls off, and, when they do get on board, they are thrown off . There are then scenes of them walking, hitching lifts on passing vehicles and going back to the trains again – some shots just show their legs trudging, or their arms and hands as they cook makeshift meals over campfires. There is one dreamlike scene where they turn a haystack into a temporary shelter, or nest, sleeping inside it. Their relationship is all very tentative and gentle, with no kisses, but just expressions on their faces showing how they are coming to love one another. The film does give a feeling of the hard work of walking such long distances, and of their poverty and isolation as outsiders in society.
Louise Brooks is luminous as Nancy, while I think Richard Arlen is also great as the quiet, noble tramp Jim, doing a great deal with his eyes. Both of them give poignantly understated performances despite this being a melodrama. Wallace Beery hams it up more as an older tramp they run into on their travels, Oklahoma Red – when the film was originally shown, it had some sound sequences, including a title song performed by Beery, but this has been lost, though I did find a version on the web performed by another singer, Scrappy Lambert.
Nancy and Jim meet Red at a sort of shanty town for tramps, which has its own laws and system of government. When police come looking for Nancy, Red helps them to escape, but then insists that she should be handed over to him as his reward – “If I’m in a gang, it’s my gang, and if there’s a girl in the gang, she’s my girl.” He organises a mock trial which seems to be a savage parody of the criminal justice system, with Jim being assumed guilty and sentenced before his “defence counsel”, another tramp, has even been allowed to say a word. The intertitles bring home the parallels with real courts, with sardonic changes to the official words – for instance, the prosecuting attorney is the “persecutin’ attorney”.
This is one of the earliest films I’ve seen with a major role for an African-American actor, Blue Washington, who plays another tramp, Mose, looking after and struggling to save a sick friend. There’s nothing particularly comic about his performance, but some scenes are all too stereotyped and the inter-titles keep pointing him out as comic relief by heavily mocking his accent.
After the high point of the trial scene, there are then a number of increasingly unlikely and sentimental plot twists which see Beery’s character having a change of heart and changing from bullying predator into the real hero of the film. It’s all compelling enough to watch, but I think the film’s real greatness lies in its earlier scenes.
All in all, though, this is a film I’m glad to have seen – and the quality of both this and Wings makes me so sad that some of Wellman’s other silent films have been lost forever.