Saturday, January 13, 2018

Stubs - The Cocoanuts (1929)

The Cocoanuts (1929) Starring Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Oscar Shaw, Mary Eaton, Kay Francis, Margaret Dumont, Cyril Ring, Basil Ruysdael, Sylvan Lee Directed by Joseph Santley and Robert Florey. Screenplay by Morrie Ryskind. Based on the Musical Play by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. Music by Irving Berlin. Produced by Walter Wanger. Run Time: 93 minutes. U.S.A. Black and White. Musical, Comedy.

While the Marx Brothers appeared in a silent film, Humor Risk (1921), now lost, their humor is very much associated with the coming of sound. While Harpo Marx could have been, and in essence was, a silent comedian, so much of not only his personality as well as the humor of Groucho and Chico requires sound. While part of the Brothers’ act was physical humor, it is the fast-talking, sarcastic, wordplay the propels much of the dialogue throughout their film career.

The group, which had started as singers, didn’t discover comedy until one night in 1912 while performing at the Opera House in Nacogdoches, Texas (or in Ada, Oklahoma, according to Harpo in Harpo Speaks; or in Marshall, Texas, according to the San Antonio Express) a runaway mule outside interrupted the performance and the audience even left to investigate what was going on. Angered by the interruption, Groucho, then a singer, made snide comments at the audience’s expense, but rather than getting angry, the audience laughed and the family realized there was potential as a comedic troupe.

While the act evolved from singing to singing with humor to comedy with music, the brothers numbered four, but that fourth was Gummo Marx. The brothers performed an act "Fun in Hi Skule" with Groucho playing the part of a German-accented professor presiding over a classroom that contained his brothers. In 1915, in Flint, Michigan, a 14-year old Zeppo joined his brothers on stage and there were five Marx Brothers. However, Gummo, thinking anything was better than being an actor, left to join the war effort. Zeppo stayed with the troupe from then through the Paramount years.

Under Chico’s management and Groucho’s creative direction, the brothers turned Vaudeville success into Broadway success with their first play, I’ll Say She Is, in 1924. Written by Will B. Johnstone, the musical comedy made stars out of them, when such notable critics such as Alexander Woollcott raved about the show. This was followed up the next year by The Cocoanuts, which ran on Broadway initially from December 8, 1925, through August 7, 1925, and revived with the Marx Brothers again in May 1927 for 16 performances.

Monta Bell, Paramount’s East Coast production head, wanted to make stage acts into sound movies, see The Letter (1929), so it is no surprise he was attracted to the Marx Brothers' stage success. That doesn’t mean he didn’t want to make changes. Most notably, he objected to Groucho’s thick greasepaint "mustache." Bell didn’t believe audiences would believe anything as "phony-looking" as that. Groucho is said to have replied, “The audience doesn't believe us anyhow. All they do is laugh at us, and isn't that what we're being paid for?"

To direct, Paramount brought in French-born Robert Florey for the dialogue sequences and Joseph Santley to handle the musical numbers. Referring to them later, Groucho was obviously not impressed, "One of them didn't understand English and the other didn't understand comedy.”

On January 12, 1929, it was announced that Paramount was expecting to begin production on February 1 in the studio’s Astoria Studio soundstages in Queens. Filming would take place during the day while the Brothers were performing in the musical Animal Crackers on stage at night. Animal Crackers, which would also be the Marx Brothers’ next film, ran at the 44th Street Theatre from October 23, 1928, until April 6, 1929. Like Cocoanuts, the musical comedy was written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. Filming on The Cocoanuts lasted until late March.

The opening dance number of The Cocoanuts.

Despite the song and dance routine at the beginning, things are slow at the Hotel de Cocoanut, so much so that the Bell Hops have not been paid in a couple of weeks. When they confront the owner, Mr. Hammer (Groucho Marx), he tries to make them believe that is a good thing. “Well, what makes wage slaves? Wages! I want you to be free.”

Jamison (Zeppo Marx) delivers a telegram to Hammer (Groucho
 Marx) while the bellhops are demanding pay.

The encounter is stopped when Hammer’s assistant Jamison (Zeppo Marx) delivers some telegrams that have come in and things go from good to worse.

HAMMER (to the bellboys) There you are. Business is beginning to pick up already. Now, if you gir--boys will only be calm... (reads telegram) Uh huh. (reads aloud) "We arrive this afternoon on the 4:30. Kindly reserve two floors and three ceilings." (aside) Must be mice. (reads) "If we like your property, we will immediately buy it." (to the delighted bellboys) See that? Things have started our way already.

JAMISON Who's it from?

HAMMER (reads) Western Union. (to the bellboys) And they've got a lot of money, too. On the 4:15, eh? Well, I'll take the bus down myself.

JAMISON Here's another one, Mr. Hammer.
Jamison hands a second telegram to Hammer who opens it.

HAMMER (to the bellboys) See? We're gonna be stuffed by tonight. This hotel will be so crowded that we'll be turning away thousands of people. (reads telegram) "If there's another hotel in Cocoanut Beach, cancel our reservation." (aside) I knew it. It was too good. The bellboys groan in disappointment.

Penelope (Kay Francis) conspires with Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring).

Meanwhile, Penelope (Kay Francis) is out front on the hotel terrace conspiring with Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring). Harvey is worried that his chances with Polly Potter (Mary Easton) and more importantly her mother’s, Mrs. Potters’ (Margaret Dumont) millions are being undercut by hotel clerk Robert Adams (Oscar Shaw), to whom Polly is courting. Penelope devises a plan to have Robert accused of stealing Mrs. Potters’ diamond necklace, which is in an unlocked box in the room next to Penelope’s.

Robert Adams (Oscar Shaw) and Polly (Mary Easton)
plan for "When My Dreams Come True".

Not far away, Robert and Polly are discussing their own plans for the future. Robert, who wants to be an architect, has a design he’s anxious to sell that would transform the hotel and its property. He’s sent it to a developer named Berryman and has hopes they are reviewing his plans. If everything goes according to plan, that will be "When My Dreams Come True" for both young lovers.

Penelope and Harvey catch Robert and Polly kissing.

Penelope and Harvey come across the two sealing their dreams with a kiss, but when Robert realizes they’ve been discovered, he pretends that he’s been telling Polly a story, Little Red Riding Hood.

In the hotel lobby, Mrs. Potter tells her daughter that she’s unhappy that she’s in love with the wrong man. She desperately wants her daughter to marry Harvey, for the supposed status.

When Hammer returns empty-handed after waiting for the afternoon trains, he finds Jamison asleep at the desk and fires him.

Hammer tries his sales pitch out on Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont).

Soon, Mrs. Potter comes through the lobby and Hammer goes into the same sales routine she has apparently heard before.

MRS. POTTER You told me about this yesterday.

HAMMER (takes a map from his pocket) I know, but I left out a comma…

Soon afterward, Chico and Red (Harpo) arrive at the hotel and Hammer mistakes them for paying guests. He notices that their luggage is empty.

CHICO That's all right. We fill it up before we leave.

While they’re at the front desk, Chico and Red disrupt Mr. Hammer and Red starts eating inanimate objects and drinking the inkwell. When Hammer goes to attend some business, he leaves the two alone, telling them to register. Instead, they hit the cash register and empty it. Chico and Red then discover that ringing the service bell brings one pretty bellhop after another until Red can no longer control himself and they chase after the girls.

Chico (Chico Marx) and Red (Harpo Marx) start to raise havoc right away in The Cocoanuts.

Chico and Red overhear Penelope and Harvey still planning the break-in. As is their way, the two disrupt the planning, forcing Penelope and Harvey into dancing with them before leaving them alone. Penelope adds them to the plan, telling Harvey that she’ll flirt with them and invite them up to her room, which is next to Mrs. Potter's. Then she’ll complain to management and when the necklace disappears they’ll be questioned as well.

Later, Red returns to the lobby with a salt shaker and begins again to eat the inanimate objects including the telephone. Chico stops him.

CHICO All the time you eat. That's a no good. We got to get-a money. Right now, I'd do anything for money. I'd kill somebody for money. I'd kill you for money.

Red looks slightly worried.

CHICO Ha ha ha! Ah, no, you're my friend -- I kill you for nothing.

Red smiles.

Enter Hennessy (Basil Ruysdael), a plainclothes detective. Hennessy thinks something’s suspicious about the two of them and tries to identify them using photos he’s brought from headquarters, but Chico and Red get into a diversionary fight. Hennessy gets fed up and leaves.

When a hotel guest comes through the lobby asking about the next train, Chico answers him. Red relieves him of his jacket which he gives to Chico to wear, but not before relieving it of its wallet. Red leaves, but Penelope returns.

She flirts with Chico and invites him up to her room.

PENELOPE Tell me, what are you doing tonight?

CHICO Maybe you got a good idea, eh?

PENELOPE Well, don't you dare come to room three-twenty at eleven o'clock.

CHICO All right, I come half past ten.

After he leaves, she tries her charms on Red, who instead of picking up her handkerchief when she drops it, pockets it. She still invites him up to her room at 11 that night.

Later that night, Hammer returns with Mrs. Potter and they sit down together. But when Hammer makes him move, Mrs. Potter pushes him away.

There is an interlude in which Red plays a soulful chorus of "When My Dreams Come True" on a harp that happens to be there.

Harpo plays "When My Dreams Come True".

What follows next is known as the Door Routine. There are little snatches of dialogue but it is mostly a visual gag. To give you the idea how much frenetic energy is in the scene, which lasts 5 minutes and 49 seconds, I consulted a script that detailed the action:

We see Rooms 318 and 320 with a connecting door. Room 320, on the right, is Penelope's.  Mrs. Potter’s is 318 on the left. Penelope opens the connecting door carefully and enters Mrs. Potter’s room. Simultaneously, Red enters 320, sees Penelope in 318 and moves to the connecting door. Getting down on hands and knees he tries to peer under the door. Red crawls backward as Penelope re-opens the connecting door. When she finally re-enters 320, Red crawls under Penelope’s bed.

Harvey enters 320 soon after and he and Penelope make their final plans. They can’t be found with the necklace on them and Harvey thinks up a solution. There is a hollow tree stump in Cocoanut Manor where they can hide it. He draws Penelope a map. He wishes her luck and leaves. Penelope studies the map and then throws it away in what she thinks is a waste can, but it is, in reality, Red’s hat.

Penelope moves to the connecting door, Hammer opens
 the door to 318, while Chico peers in room 320.

Penelope moves to the connecting door and slowly opens and closes it. As she does, Hammer opens the hall door to 318, peers in, then closes the door. Penelope slowly opens and closes the connecting door, then Hammer opens and closes the hall door to 318. Now, simultaneously, Hammer opens the door to 318, Penelope opens the connecting door and Chico opens the hall door to 320 and enters. He sees Penelope at the connecting door and slams the hall door. In turn, Penelope slams the connecting door. And in turn, Hammer enters 318 and slams his door. Penelope confronts Chico who takes her hands romantically. Hammer knocks at the connecting door and bursts in on Penelope as Chico ducks out the hall door.

Somehow, Red is now in 318, sitting in a chair. He gets up and hops around on a sore foot as 
Hammer, in 320, listens at the connecting door. We hear a knock at the hall door to 320. 
Instantly, Red exits 318 by the hall door, Hammer enters 318 by the connecting door and Chico enters 320 from the hall to confront Penelope. Chico enters 318 by the connecting door, Hammer exits 318 by the hall door and Red enters 320 from the hall and gives Penelope a big hug. Hammer pounds on the hall door to 318. Instantly, Red exits 320 by the hall door, Chico enters 320 by the connecting door, and Hammer enters 318 from the hall where he dizzily paces the room and does a nifty spin.

HAMMER (to the camera): This hotel not only has running water, it has running guests.

In 320, Chico confers with Penelope. In 318, Hammer knocks at the connecting door. Instantly, Chico exits 320 by the hall door, Hammer enters 320 by the connecting door, and Red enters 318 from the hall. Listening at the connecting door, Hammer hears the phone in 318 ring. Red answers it. Since he either can't or won't speak, he merely HONKS his horn several times, then slams down the earpiece. Instantly, Red rushes out of 318 by the hall door, Hammer enters 318 by the connecting door, and Chico enters 320 from the hall, arms outstretched to greet Penelope who is listening at the connecting door. The hall door to 320 opens and Chico ducks under Penelope's bed to hide. Red enters from the hall, sees Penelope listening at the connecting door, quietly closes the hall door, then knocks on it.

Red immediately exits 320 into the hall. Hammer enters 320 by the connecting door, much to Penelope's surprise. Before Hammer can say or do anything, there's a knock at the hall door to 320. Hammer quickly hides under Penelope's bed as she moves to answer the hall door.

Simultaneously, Chico crawls out from under the front of the bed, then follows Hammer back under again. Penelope opens the hall door to reveal a bellhop who enters with a pitcher.

Bellhop puts the pitcher on the table. Bellhop heads for the door and exits as Hammer's voice drifts in from under the bed and chides Penelope.

Now, Mrs. Potter enters her room (318) from the hall door and closes it. As she moves toward the connecting door, there's a knock. Red enters from the hall, grinning like a maniac and carrying a pitcher of ice water. Red hops on Mrs. Potter's bed and lies down, inviting her to join him. She is completely offended. Red leaves the pitcher on her bureau, waves goodbye and exits out the hall door. As Mrs. Potter again moves toward the connecting door, there's another knock. Red enters from the hall, grinning, turns right around, and exits again.

Hammer enters from the connecting door and flops down in an armchair next to Mrs. Potter.
Meanwhile, Red has entered 320 from the hall just long enough to approach Penelope, HONK at her, and exit again. In 318, Hammer rises and, after feinting an exit through the hall door, moves to feint an exit at the connecting door. Instead, he grins mischievously and starts to take his jacket off. Hammer has moved to the hall door. Mrs. Potter moves to the phone. A knock at the hall door. Hennessy enters 318 and looks around.

Mrs. Potter exits out the hall door as Hennessy knocks at the connecting door. He opens it and enters 320, looking it over. Penelope watches as Hammer exits the closet and, with a crouching saunter, passes through the connecting door and circles Hennessy who fails to notice Hammer keeping pace behind him. Finally, Hammer, having circled Hennessy, exits out the connecting door unnoticed.

Hennessy exits out Penelope's hall door. Hammer enters 320 through the connecting door and puts his arms around Penelope whereupon there is a pounding at the door. Hammer ducks under Penelope's bed just as Hennessy enters 320 from the hall door and Penelope enters 318 through the connecting door.

In 318, Penelope opens the drawer of Mrs. Potter's dressing table and removes a necklace from a case. She slips the jewelry down the front of her dress, rises and exits out the hall door. A moment later, Hennessy enters 318 through the connecting door to find the room empty. He exits out the hall door just as Penelope enters 320 from the hall door. Penelope leans against her door and breathes a sigh of relief. She sits on the edge of her bed. Red's head emerges 
from the center of the mattress, startling Penelope.

Hammer shows Chico a map of his planned development, including the viaduct.

The next morning, Hammer and Chico sit down to have a talk. Hammer is about to auction off some swamp land and needs Chico’s help in driving up the prices. In order to help familiarize Chico with the layout, Hammer sits down with a blueprint. While the Door Routine was essentially visual, the humor in this scene is all verbal, ending with what may be the most famous question in film.

HAMMER Now, right over here, this is the residential section.

CHICO Oh, people live there, eh?

HAMMER No, that's the stockyard. Now, all along here, this is the riverfront. And all along the river, all along the river, those are all levees.

CHICO That's the Jewish neighborhood?

HAMMER (pause) Well, we'll Passover that. You're a peach, boy. Now, here is a little peninsula, and, eh, here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland.

CHICO Why a duck?

There’s more to the exchange, but you get the idea.

Later that day at the auction, after Polly performs “The Monkey-Doodle-Doo", Groucho starts the auction. To his frustration, Chico keeps raising his bid, outbidding everyone, including himself. It is during the auction that Mrs. Potter announces that her necklace has been stolen and offers a thousand-dollar reward, whereupon Chico offers two thousand. No one, except the perpetrators and Harpo, knows that the jewels are only a few feet away.

Detective Hennessy decides that the culprit is Bob Adams, Polly’s suitor. Penelope and Harvey help to frame him and Bob is taken off to jail. Even though Polly is heartbroken, Mrs. Potter decides that for her own daughter’s reputation she will wed Harvey and announces that there will be an engagement party that night at the hotel. Polly is distressed and stays behind after everyone else has gone, finally breaking down and crying when she is left alone.

That night, Chico and Red go to the jail and hide from view when Hennessy leaves. Red positions himself so that when Hennessy thinks he’s putting the keys in his own pocket he is actually putting it in Red’s. With the key, they go inside and let Bob out of his cell. Chico tells him about the engagement party that night and that Polly needs him.

Playfully, Red lets himself into the cell and closes the door. When he realizes that he’s locked himself in, he briefly panics and honks his horn for help. Then he realizes one of the bars is loose and lets himself out through the very small opening.

Robert examines the writing on the map Harvey drew for Penelope.

Back at the hotel, Bob tries to convince Hammer of his innocence but doesn’t know how. Red produces a folded-up piece of paper, but it’s a newspaper story about him, "Silent Red wanted by the police." Red snatches it away, but while he’s searching his pocket other items fall out, including an alarm clock, fruit, silverware, etc. The three men scramble around trying to pick these things up.
Red finally hands Bob the right piece of paper but continues his shenanigans including snatching Bob’s handkerchief out of his breast pocket with his teeth and continuing to snatch it no matter where Bob puts it. He then steals Bob’s watch and Hammer’s tie. Bob finally manages to read the note, which, in Harvey’s handwriting, is the directions he had written for Penelope.

Later, the engagement party is in full swing. Guests are dressed in vaguely Spanish or South American styles. There is a chorus line with dancers in a number similar to the type Busby Berkeley would become famous for, complete with an overhead camera view, one of the first times this was used in a feature. Polly is once again called upon to perform, singing a sad refrain of "When My Dreams Come True."

Guests are greeted by Mrs. Potter and Harvey, while Irving Berlin’s “Tango Melody” plays, including Penelope who makes a point of telling Harvey what a lucky man he is.

Hammer shows up in a fez with extra-long tassels, much to the amusement of Mrs. Potter.

Hennessy (Basil Ruysdael) about to sing "The Tale of a Shirt" to the tune of Bizet's Carmen.

Hennessy also attends, offering that Mrs. Potter can use protection from a couple of shady characters to which Red and Chico take offense. In an effort to humiliate Hennessy, Red steals the shirt off his back and from under his vest, even going so far as to put it on himself. Chico draws using a crayon on Hennessy’s undershirt. This leads the lawman to launch into song, "The Tale of a Shirt" sung to Bizet’s Carmen with special lyrics by Irving Berlin. During the number, Red returns the shirt to Hennessy who exits in triumph.

Harpo pretends to be drunk at the party.

There is some nonsense in which Red pretends to be drunk throughout the dinner, getting up and walking away, only to come back. Repeat and repeat again.

Chico plays a verse and two choruses of Victor Herbert's "Gypsy Love Song” 

Chico finally sits down at the piano and plays a verse and two choruses of Victor Herbert's "Gypsy Love Song”. He plays half the song in a classical style and the second half in a more upbeat jazz idiom, complete with Chico’s own unique fingerings. Audiences would become accustomed to his style of playing in future films, but it had to seem somewhat unique to many at the time.

Hammer introduces Polly, who reveals to everyone two pieces of paper. The map that he drew Penelope of the hiding place for her mother’s stolen necklace and a note that he wrote her as an engagement present. Before things get figured out, Harvey makes his escape.

Bob Adams shows up wearing a tuxedo. He has good news: not only have his architecture plans been accepted, but a Mr. John W. Berryman is there to buy Cocoanut Manor for the development.
Mrs. Potter, realizing that Bob is a better choice, tells those gathered that they are invited to the wedding of Polly and Bob Adams, to which there are cheers from the party.

Meanwhile, Hennessy lights a cigarette for Penelope, who we see is handcuffed to Harvey.
While Polly leads the bridesmaids in song, we see Jamison, Hammer, Chico, and Red standing together smiling and waving to the camera.

The four Marx Brothers wave to the camera at the end of The Cocoanuts.

It is reported when the Marx Brothers first saw the film, they were so appalled that they tried to buy back the negative to prevent the film from being released. Paramount, however, was not in the selling mood and The Cocoanuts was released on August 3, 1929. The film, which cost $500,000 to make, made $1.8 million at the box office, which at the time was considered a big hit. This would lead to other films the Four Marx Brothers would make at Paramount: Animal Crackers (1930)Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933). When the last film didn’t live up to expectations at the boxoffice, they were dumped by Paramount. Zeppo left the group to become an agent and the Three Marx Brothers would move to MGM.

Margaret Dumont will be a foil for Groucho in several Marx Brothers films.

One of the staples of future Marx Brothers films was Margaret Dumont. Dumont appeared with the brothers in the stage musical The Cocoanuts. She would play straight man to Groucho in most of the best Marx Brothers films, including The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, A Night at the Opera (1935), A Day at the Races (1937), At The Circus (1939), and The Big Store (1941). She would have a career outside her appearances with the Marx Brothers, including the low budget Shake, Rattle & Roll (1957) from American International Pictures (AIP) opposite the likes of Mike Connors, Sterling Holloway, Big Joe Turner and Fats Domino.

Like Dumont, Basil Ruysdael was also in the stage version of The Cocoanuts and revived his role as Detective Hennessy in the film version. An opera singer, Ruysdael appeared with the Metropolitan Opera in New York as a bass-baritone from 1910 to 1918. Given that background, it seems his talents were sort of wasted with “The Tale of a Shirt". Most of his best-known film appearances would come in the late 1940s to the early 1960s, including Colorado Territory (1949), People Will Talk (1951), Blackboard Jungle (1955), The Horse Soldiers (1959) and One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) - Truck Driver (voice), his final film role.

With the exception of Dumont and Ruysdael, most of the supporting cast would be remembered, if at all, for their performances in this film. As an example, Mary Eaton who played Polly may have had a successful stage career appearing in eight Broadway productions during the 1920s. However, she had a rather brief film career. She seems talented, but the choices of when they have her sing seem forced.

Mary Eaton singing "When My Dreams Come True".

Sadly, Eaton had a rather short film career and died when she was only 42 of liver failure.

A veteran of the Broadway stage, Oscar Shaw would only appear in eight films and only one after 1929. He seems likable in the role, but he was already near the end of his career when he made The Cocoanuts.

Cyril Ring, who played Harvey Yates, would appear in 330 films, between 1921 and 1947, including two more with the Marxes: Monkey Business and A Day in the Races. Ring would also appear in such films as Topper (1937), Young Dr. Kildare (1938), My Favorite Wife (1940), The Great Dictator (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Citizen Kane (1941), Meet John Doe (1941), Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), Mr. Skeffington (1944) and Laura (1944), though he is not often credited. He seems devious enough here, but it may be his best-known role of his career.

Bucking the trend of having The Cocoanuts be their most memorable role, was Kay Francis, who played Penelope. While her part in The Cocoanuts was important to the plot, it wasn’t all that large. While she participated in the Door Routine, most of the humor is thanks to Groucho and Harpo. She had been on the Broadway stage since 1925’s Hamlet, in which she made her debut as the Player Queen; a part she claimed she got by “lying a lot, to the right people”. She would return to Broadway in the play Crime in support of Sylvia Sidney, but Francis was said to have stolen the show. After appearing in Elmer The Great (1928), she was encouraged by her co-star, Walter Huston, to take a screen test at Paramount Pictures for the film Gentlemen of the Press (1929). She made that film as well as The Cocoanuts before coming to Hollywood.

Kay Francis would go on to be the queen of the Warner Bros. lot.

She would find success at Paramount, making 21 films between 1929 and 1932, before being lured away by Warner Bros. From 1932 to 1936, Francis was the queen of the Warner Bros. lot. She frequently played long-suffering heroines, in films such as I Found Stella Parish (1935), Secrets of an Actress (1938), and Comet Over Broadway (1938). But eventually, she tired of these roles and began to feud with Warners, which led to her demotion to programmers and her eventual termination in 1939.

After appearing in The Independent Theatre Owners Association’s 1938 list of “box office poison” 
(along with the likes of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, Mae West, and Katharine Hepburn), Francis could not secure another studio contract. While she would have the lead in King of the Underworld (1939) opposite Humphrey Bogart, Francis began to play character and supporting parts in films like The Feminine Touch (1941).

Essentially, The Cocoanuts is nothing more than a filmed stage play. The camera is pretty much stagnant as it records the action, not unlike an audience member with really good seats might also see. This is due to the practice of making early sound films. Since early sound cameras were noisy, the only way to eliminate the noise was to enclose the camera and the cameraman in a large soundproof booth which forced the camera to remain static. So sensitive were the early sound recording equipment that paper just in the film, like the map, was soaked in water to avoid the sound of crackling paper to avoid overloading them.

However, it is what is recorded that counts. While The Cocoanuts may not be a great film or even a great Marx Brothers film, many of the gags that we will see in all future films have their roots here. While the Marxes will eventually come together, they always seem to start on opposite sides with Chico and Harpo, as the ne’er-do-wells, on one side pitted against Groucho (and Zeppo), the authority figure, on the other. And that is true here, as Groucho’s hotel becomes another place for Chico and Harpo to freeload and rob. They do finally come together to save Robert from jail and to reunite him with Polly. We will see that repeated in other films as well.

A little bit of lunacy, the Brothers imitate the Spirit of '76.

There are the musical interludes which don’t always seem to fit in with the story. Here, some of the songs seem out of place for the story (“The Monkey-Doodle-Doo") or seem to be show-stoppers but not in a good way. And while the Marx Brothers are surrounded by some talent, it is really Chico and Harpo who are the real virtuosos in their films. Harpo’s playing always seems to come as a surprise given the anarchy his character brings to everything else around him. Chico’s piano-playing always looks so effortless.

The film also shows off the group's great wordplay, much of which had been developed through improv over the run of the musical on Broadway. So prevalent was the group's improv that George S. Kaufman, one of the writers of the 1925 Broadway production, was heard to have muttered from the back of the theater, "I may be wrong, but I think I just heard one of the original lines." The brothers would apparently work in bits and keep those that got the biggest laughs. So what we see on film was the culmination of that work. But this sort of wordplay, especially between Groucho and Chico, would be repeated over and over again throughout their film careers.

Despite the predominance of the spoken word, the brothers also relied on physical comedy, not only in scenes like the Door Routine but also through Harpo’s actions. Not only does he seem to get people to hold his knee, but he also eats the telephone and drinks the ink. He is a walking sound effect with the ever-present horn that he uses in place of dialogue or just to make people around him uncomfortable. Physical comedy is the basis of many of the Brothers’ greatest scenes, like the Mirror Scene in Duck Soup.

Now all that said, The Cocoanuts is not a great Marx Brothers film. Their films at Paramount would improve from this point on; which is the best is really very subjective. If you’re new to the Marx Brothers (where have you been?) then this might not be the one you want to start with. However, you should definitely watch it at some point. Also remember that the film is almost 90 years old, so that the film may not be politically correct in today’s world. It’s just funny and that’s what the Marx Brothers were going for.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Undertale (PS4)

Back in 2015, Undertale launched digitally on PC to near-universal acclaim. When I first heard about the game on launch, I felt like I needed to play it, but despite eventually getting a Steam copy, I never got around to playing it. For some reason, it wasn’t until I got a physical copy (specifically the Collector’s Edition) on PS4 for Christmas that I finally took the plunge and completed the campaign just to see what all the fuss was about. After a few hours over the course of two days, I walked away thinking that Undertale really is a great game, but also feeling that in some ways the hype had tempered my reaction to the experience.

Long ago, Humans and Monsters co-existed until a war broke out between them. Victorious, the Humans used powerful magic to seal the Monsters underground, never to be seen again. Many years later, in 201X, a child wanders over to the site of the barrier between the worlds on Mount Ebott and falls through. Now they seek to return to the surface, which may prove more difficult than imagined.

The start of the opening backstory.

I won’t go too deeply into the actual story, since the very existence of certain characters can qualify as a major spoiler. However, I will say that the story that runs throughout the game, as well as the gradually uncovered lore, is pretty interesting. The player will also interact with a whole cast of characters, each with their own personality and dynamics that help them feel unique and memorable. For this reason, early-game characters Toriel, Sans and Papyrus became instant favorites. There are certainly some shocking or genuinely emotional moments, which I would attribute partly to the easy-to-follow, yet still somewhat complex plot, which holds the story together.

Of course, my reaction to some of these moments was tempered by the fact that I had been spoiled on certain parts of the game before I got the chance to play. I’ll admit that this is at least partly my own fault, but seeing fan stuff, as well as actual information about the game, online or at San Diego Comic-Con and WonderCon had taken away some of the surprise of the game during my playthrough. That said, I was able to dodge spoilers about one particular area of the game and the spoilers didn’t prevent me from figuring out why certain moments were meant to be shocking or impactful and I still felt genuine emotion during certain moments I remained mostly unaware of. Basically, being spoiled on this game ruined some of the surprise, but didn’t do much to diminish my own enjoyment of the story and characters.

Then there’s the gameplay. Undertale is a top-down RPG where the player can explore different areas of the Underground and interact with various NPCs and visit shops to buy and sell items or stay at an inn for a health bonus. Players can also equip items for various stat boosts and use other items to open up parts of the world or complete certain side events. When it comes time to fight bosses or enemies randomly encountered in the overworld, combat begins.

Undertale’s combat system is rather unique in that it combines elements from turn-based RPGs and Bullet Hell games into a hybrid system. The player is given four options: FIGHT, ACT, ITEM and MERCY. While FIGHT and ITEM serve pretty obvious functions, the two more interesting ones are ACT and MERCY. The MERCY mechanic is Undertale’s main selling point: that you can end any encounter non-violently. MERCY gives you the option to Spare a monster or to Flee (running away is a standard RPG move). To Spare a monster, the player will need to use the ACT function, which allows the player to Check an enemy’s stats or perform any amount of unique actions associated with each monster. Each monster is unique, with their own personality traits and quirks, so figuring out each sequence of ACT commands to gain the option to Spare them can be a puzzle of its own if the player chooses to play non-violently.

An example of combat.

Choosing any of the four main options will take up the player’s turn, at which point it becomes the monster’s turn and a white box will show up. Every monster has a unique pattern of attacks which the player has to dodge within this box. Dodging can get more difficult when faced with two or three monsters at once, so players are expected to stay on their toes during this segment. No matter how each encounter ends, the player will gain an amount of EXP and Gold, the latter of which can be spent at shops for better equipment and healing items.

While the overall gameplay is fairly unique and interesting, I overall found it kind of average and the more underwhelming aspect of the game. That’s not to say it was bad, far from it, but it felt a bit easy and less challenging than I had expected. This extends to one of the final bosses, which I had expected to be a big challenge based on how people talked about it, but ended up beating it in two tries. In fact, on the tougher bosses in the game, I got good enough at dodging, and maintaining a high amount of healing items throughout the game, that the low HP I maintained based on my choices became largely a non-issue. Still, I commend the game for at least trying something new and potentially laying the groundwork for a more refined version of the system later down the line.

I’ll also mention here that one central passive mechanic of the game is that it responds to your decisions. While these responses can be very minor and the idea of a game reacting to choices isn’t new, especially in popular games which have branching paths based around this, I will at least say that Undertale is able to take this concept to levels rarely seen in other games. I can’t say anything more without possibly spoiling something, but it’s certainly something to keep in mind while playing.

One notable aspect of Undertale is how its art style attempts to capture an old-school look with more simplistic graphics, likely due to how small the dev team and budget were. In spite of this artistic choice, it feels fitting after a while and is still capable of showing off a good amount of creativity with monster design. That said, the art style won’t appeal to everyone and whether or not the player can see past it will likely affect their enjoyment of the game.

The music is also rendered such that it evokes an old-school feeling, but it seems to work strongly in its favor. Toby Fox has composed a score that sounds like a mixture of piano and electronic which features heavy use of repeating leitmotifs. The result is a collection of songs which really fit the atmosphere and tone of the game at any given moment and a few of the tracks are highly memorable even outside the context of the game, due in part to the aforementioned repetition of leitmotifs. A few highlights from the soundtrack include Bonetrousle, Metal Crusher, CORE, Your Best Nightmare and MEGALOVANIA.

Part of this complete breakfast!

As mentioned before, I obtained a physical Collector’s Edition of Undertale on PS4 before I finally played the game. Along with the game, it also contained a physical 2-disc version of the soundtrack which came with seven additional tracks not found in the normal version (including the version of Bonetrousle featured in Undertale’s launch trailer) and a music box locket. The mechanism of the locket is of pretty good quality and we’ve determined that the locket plays the song Memory when wound up. However, it’s possible to briefly trigger the mechanism for a second if the locket is closed hard enough. Also, without spoiling anything, if you have the locket in your possession before playing Undertale for the first time, like I did, it will take on a greater significance once you've completed the story.

I thought it was worth it.

One final thing to note is that Undertale was surprisingly short. As stated on the game’s website, the average playtime is about six hours, although it took me a little longer over a couple of days due to how and when I played it. Additionally, the PS4 version keeps the aspect ratio of the original PC release, so the player has the ability to add a border around the game to fill in empty space and keep things interesting (especially if you select the Dynamic border).

Undertale is indeed a great game, but, as expressed by the developer, Toby Fox, it’s not perfect. The hybrid battle system and overworld puzzles can feel a bit too easy at times, even when facing some of the more challenging bosses. However, the game is more fondly known for its intriguing premise and concepts, unique and likeable characters, genuinely emotional moments and a rather memorable soundtrack even outside of the context of the game. The experience of Undertale won’t completely satisfy everyone, especially with how easy it is to find secrets on the internet, but it’s worth playing through at least once. If you’re a fan of RPGs or want to see a good example of a crowdfunded video game, try this game.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Stubs - Beggars of Life

Beggars of Life (1928) Starring Wallace Beery, Richard Arlen, Louise Brooks. Directed by William A. Wellman. Screenplay by Benjamin Glazer with Titles by Julian Johnson. Based on the novel Beggars of Life by Jim Tully (New York, 1924). Produced by Benjamin Glazer Run Time: 80 minutes USA Black and White. Silent. Drama.

In the fall of 1925, Outside Looking In was a minor hit on Broadway. Based on the biography of Jim Tully, who had spent seven years riding the rails of the US as a Hobo (what they used to call wandering homeless men), the play, written by Maxwell Anderson, ran for a total of 113 performances during the fall. One of the fans of the play was Charles Chaplin, who was in New York for the premiere of his film The Gold Rush (1925). He saw the play three times during its run. While he was in town, he also had a short love affair with a young dancer featured in the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. The third time he attended the play, he brought his young lover with him. She was not nearly as impressed as he was with the play. She would later comment she would have paid more attention to the play if she knew someday she would star in the film version. That young woman was Louise Brooks.

Perhaps known now for her later films in Europe: Pandora's Box (1929); Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) and Prix de Beauté (1930), in 1928, Brooks was a contract player at Paramount Pictures, having also been discovered by producer Walter Wanger while dancing in the Ziegfeld show. Wagner, who was also at Paramount, had actually encouraged Brooks to sign with MGM, the other studio interested in her, but she, as she often did, did it her way and signed with Paramount for a five-year contract in 1925. Never really sold on a film career, Brooks never took Hollywood fame or acting very seriously, though she did appear in a dozen films before Beggars of Life, working with directors like Frank Tuttle, Malcolm St. Clair and Howard Hawks and with such actors as W.C. Fields, Ford Sterling, Adolphe Menjou, and Wallace Beery before making Beggars of Life.

Wallace Beery, whom we’ve discussed before in our review of Min and Bill (1930), was already a big star in Hollywood. He had broken in playing comedy, even in a series of cross-dressing films as Sweedie, a Swedish maid character. He had turned to villains in such films as Patria (1917), in which he portrayed the still active Pancho Villa. Beery had appeared in a wide range of films prior to Beggars of Life, including The Last of the Mohicans (1920); The Round-Up (1920) with Fatty Arbuckle); Robin Hood (1922) with Douglas Fairbanks playing King Richard the Lionheart; reprising the role in the sequel Richard the Lion-Hearted (1923); The Lost World (1925), as Professor Challenger; Old Ironsides (1926); Casey at the Bat (1927); and Now We're in the Air (1927) opposite a still new talent, Louise Brooks.

Richard Arlen got into films in a rather unusual way. After World War I, Arlen worked in the oilfields of Oklahoma and Texas before heading to Hollywood to become a movie star. However, he found that no producer was interested. He took a job as a delivery boy for a film laboratory when the motorcycle which he was riding landed him with a broken leg outside the Paramount Pictures lot.  A director took pity on Arlen and gave him his start as an extra. His first screen appearance was in Ladies Must Live (1921). Arlen would appear in several films, but mostly in uncredited roles or in supporting roles. Wings was his breakout role.

At about the same time as Chaplin was discovering Outside Looking In, Paramount was also interested in the property, thinking Beggars of Life would make a good film. That job fell to William A. Wellman, their contracted director, who had recently finished their biggest hit from 1927, Wings.  Tully was originally going to adapt his own book, but in the end, the credit went to Benjamin Glazer. Glazer at the time was a very successful screenwriter, having won an Academy Award in 1927 for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) for his adaptation of the novel Seventh Heaven by Austin Strong.

While Tully’s book would have been considered an autobiography, the film is anything but. There is no Tully character and the story isn’t really based on his adventures on the rails. It was rumored at the time that Tully would appear in the film, that didn’t happen either.

Jim Tully didn't appear in the film, but he did visit the set. Seen here
with Louise Brooks, Wallace Beery and Richard Arlen.

Production began in May 1928, either on the 19th (according to Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World) or the 24th (according to Film Daily). There were 10 days of work done at the studio before the production team, seventy-five strong, left for location shooting at Jacumba Hot Springs California, down near the Mexican border, on June 3rd. They would stay on location until June 27th, when the crew returned to Hollywood.

The main reason for shooting in Jacumba was the use of the railroad as the train plays a large part in the telling of the story. All of that activity occurred in and around Locomotive 102. Since there were few trains scheduled to use the track, it allowed for Wellman and crew plenty of time to get shots without having to worry about being disturbed.

Location shooting had its ups and downs, especially for Brooks. She found that Arlen, despite his smiling demeanor, did not think much of her or her acting, letting it all go one night over whiskey when the two were alone. Not only did he not like the fact that he made far less than she did, but he thought she was a non-talent actress as well. According to Brooks, in her essay “On Location with Billy Wellman” written many years after the fact, Arlen, already drunk, told her “… You – why, you can’t even act! You’re not even good-looking. You’re a lousy actress and your eyes are too close together.”

Brooks seemed to have given her all to the production, letting herself get talked, by the director, into doing her own stunt on occasion. One time, while trying to run and hop on a moving train, she was nearly swept up underneath it.

The production crew on location at Jacumba.

While she worked hard, she also played hard. After watching her male stunt double, Harvey Parry, complete an arduous stunt and admiring his physique, she offered to let him come to her room that night, which he did. Brooks was known as a sexually liberated woman, long before it was considered fashionable. Her reputation followed after her. The next morning, Harvey confronted her. He had heard from someone that Brooks was the girlfriend of a studio executive whom she didn’t know. Harvey had heard that this executive had syphilis, so in front of the whole crew, Harvey asked Louise if she had syphilis, much to her great embarrassment.

But these distractions didn’t really affect the actual production of the film. What did impact it was the transition from silent to sound films. As theaters across the country were transitioning, Paramount Pictures wanted to have a sound product, so the film was released in both versions. Using the Movietone process, the sound effects, a synchronized musical score, a bit of dialogue and a song were included. Beggars of Life would be the studio’s first release to include spoken dialogue. No sound elements from the original release still exist.

The song was sung by Wallace Beery, who, ironically, would later be fired by Paramount most likely because of the same vocal qualities that would make him a memorable actor at this next studio, MGM; his basso voice and gruff, deliberate drawl.

The film opens with a hobo, Jim (Richard Arlen), walking up to a farmhouse. The door is open, but the screen door is closed. Jim can see and smell the food on the table in front of a farmer (Frank Brownlee), who appears to be sleeping. Jim tries to rouse the man, and when that fails takes the bold step of going inside. He finds that the man is not asleep, but dead with blood on the floor.

The only person inside is Nancy (Louise Brooks), who is dressed in men’s clothing. She admits that the man is her adoptive father and that ever since she’s lived with him, the man had been making sexual overtones towards her. Finally, this morning, after she made him breakfast, the man grabbed her. In her struggle to escape, she ended up shooting him with a rifle. Mortally wounded, the man ended up sitting down at his place at the table.

Nancy (Louise Brooks) tells Jim the story of the murder.

Nancy wants to get out before the murder is discovered. She feels her odds are better if she looks like a boy rather than a girl.

Jim is reluctant to help her but agrees to help her escape. He is used to riding the rails and agrees to get her on a train going in one direction, while he gets on one going in the opposite. He makes a point of packing the food from the dead man’s plate before the two leave the house.

Jim (Richard Arlen) tries to teach Nancy how to jump on a moving boxcar.

Nancy claims to have caught a train before, but her first attempt goes badly and she gets thrown. Jim takes pity on her and agrees to have her come with him. With his help, the two manage to scramble into an open flatbed and are about to indulge in a little picnic when a train detective catches them. He makes the two of them jump off the train. Nancy is a little worse for wear, but manages to walk off her injury.

Nancy ends up in the weeds next to the track.

The two walk until it gets to be nightfall. Jim leads her into a farmer’s pasture, where he cleans out enough room for them to sleep. While Nancy is a bit nervous about sleeping next to a strange man, the two talk about their dreams. Jim is on his way to Canada where his Uncle will set him up if he wants to settle down. That sounds good to Nancy, who has similar dreams as well. The two sleep next to each other without incident until the next morning. That’s when a Farmer discovers the two. They run off before he can stop them.

A publicity still showing the moment they're discovered in the farmer's hay.

But by the next morning, there are already wanted posters out for Nancy, which Jim tries to hide from Nancy. They’re both hungry and when a horse-drawn bakery cart goes by, they hop on the back and help themselves to buns to eat. The driver (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams) who had been asleep, awakes when he hears them. Moving a lever, the seat they’re on withdraws and Jim and Nancy fall onto the street.

For a few moments, things are looking up as they grab and eat breakfast on a bakery cart.

Jim leads Nancy off the main road and into the jungle, eventually ending up at a hobo camp run by The Arkansaw Snake (Robert Perry) where they are not allowed to eat any of the stew that is being prepared since they didn’t contribute to the pot.

Oklahoma Red (Wallace Berry) show up carrying a stolen keg of moonshine.

After a while, Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) shows up, carrying a stolen keg over his shoulder and singing a song about being a hobo. Arkansaw relents control to Oklahoma and he offers up his moonlighting to everyone including Jim and Nancy, whom everyone still thinks is a boy. It is only after her backside is noticed that her true identity is revealed.

The hobos take a prurient interest in her and Jim is no position to physically stop them. However, he shows them her wanted poster and the men back away. They don’t have any plans to let her come with them, but Red insists they bring her along.

Officials raid the camp, but the hobos fight back, subduing their cops. When the train they plan to ride comes by, the hobos run off with Red even going back to collect the keg. All of the men make it into the same boxcar. They all have colorful names, like Lame Hoppy (Roscoe Karns), a one-legged hobo; Black Mose (Edgar “Blue” Washington), a black hobo who is accompanying a sick white hobo; Skinny (Horace “Kewpie” Morgan); Baldy (George Kotsonaros); Ukie (Jack Chapin); Rubin (Johnnie Morris); and Skelly (Andy Clark).

Red sees Jim as an obstacle to get to Nancy and plans to get rid of him.

Red takes control of the situation, stating that if he’s in a gang, it’s his gang. Giving Nancy the once over, he adds that any girl in the gang is his girl. There is a very real sense that rape and/or gang rape is not too far away from happening. Jim seems to be all that is standing in the way, so Red organizes a Kangaroo court to find Jim guilty and sentence him to death by being thrown from the train. Dressing up like judge and jury, Red finds Jim guilty before any evidence is given.

With Red's gun, Jim manages to hold everybody back away from Nancy.

But Nancy insists on choosing Arkansaw as her champion and a fight ensues amongst the hobos. Jim manages to pick up Red’s gun when it falls to the floor. But their confrontation is interrupted when more railroad detectives aboard the train start making their way back to the boxcar. Red climbs out and detaches the car from the rest of the train, sending several cars, including the caboose, back down the perilous track and crashing into a barricade at the bottom of the hill.

Black Mose (Edgar “Blue” Washington) takes Nancy and Jim to an abandoned shack.

With the authorities coming, the hobos scatter. Black Mose, who is carrying his sick companion, leads Jim and Nancy to a nearby abandoned shack where they can hide out. After a while, Black Mose goes off to look for food for his friend and while he is gone, the hobo dies. Jim and Nancy cover him up to his eyes.

Red shows up in a stolen car with a stolen dress for Nancy.

Out of the blue, Oklahoma Red shows up driving a car he's managed to pilfer and a dress for Nancy, which she puts on while Jim and Red step outside to talk. Jim keeps the gun on Red but allows him to make one final play for Nancy, using the tact that they’re looking for the two of them and splitting up would be in everyone’s best interest. While what he says makes some sense, Nancy and Jim decide to stay together. Red starts to leave, but comes back one more time and manages to take the gun away from Jim.

Jim continues to train his gun on Red even after he's tried to help them out.

Red claims to be tired and, with time to kill before the next train, lays down next to the dead hobo to take a nap.

Black Mose returns with food, including a chicken, which he proceeds to pluck, not realizing his friend is already dead. With Red pretending to be asleep, Jim and Nancy make a run for it, steal the car and drive off. Red stops pretending to sleep and tells Black Mose that he was waiting for them to make a run, hoping to help them since they’re in love.

When Black Mose discovers his friend is dead, it hatches a plan with Red. To better aide in Nancy’s escape, they dress the dead man in her man clothes and then take him back to the wreckage. There they place his body in amongst the lumber cargo along with igniter fuel to create a fire. Black Mose warns Red about getting trapped, but Red tells him his foot hasn’t slipped yet.

Authorities arrive and arrest Black Mose and reattach the caboose and other cars to the main train. After they’re going, Red sets a fire. The authorities are trapped in the caboose with the fire in the car next to them. Red manages to escape from the car and once again uncouples the cars from the main train. But this time he’s shot by authorities as he climbs on top of the boxcar.

The caboose and flatcar head back down the track and eventually off the track into the gorge below.

Cut to Jim and Nancy on a train headed to Canada, thinking about how Red helped them escape.

Meanwhile, Red, who is only semi-conscious, slips off the boxcar and over the edge of the cliff. He lands hard on a landing and with his last breath says, “I guess my foot slipped”.

The film had its premiere in Indianapolis on September 5, 1928, and its New York opening on September 22. Seeing as it was Wellman’s next film after Wings, as well as Paramount’s first film with synchronized dialogue, there was a lot of anticipation around its release. However, the film did not fare well with film audiences or critics, receiving mixed reviews at best. As an example, Variety in its review on September 26th review called it “not an exceptionally good picture.” Mordaunt Hall, in his review in the New York Times, dated September 24, states, “It is a picture that might have been infinitely better handled, for William Wellman, who is responsible for the direction, reveals but little intimate knowledge of his subject.”

Some of the thought about the film’s lack of success has to do with its dark tones during what was still the good times in the U.S.; the great depression was still over a year away and this wasn’t the right film at the right time. Audiences at the time were said to want their stars to look glamorous on film, rather than dressed like hobos.

There are some interesting features about the film. One that comes to mind is how Nancy tells Jim about the farmer attacking her. In what would normally now be a flashback with voice-over is told by showing the action with Nancy’s face superimposed over it, linking the teller with the story.

While Wallace Beery might not be my favorite actor, he certainly does have a star’s presence when he appears on the screen. You can’t help but look at him and I found him easier to take without sound. His character Red is hard to pin down. At one point, it is pretty obvious that he wants to rape Nancy, but only a few hours later, he lets the love he sees between Nancy and Jim change his mind to help them. He’s just a really bad guy with a heart o’ gold.

Louise Brooks, who is as good in this film as Richard Arlen is, never really looks like a boy. She is far too pretty to pass. Also, while she looks good in her signature bob haircut, I wonder if the farmer’s daughter that she’s supposed to portray would have that same exact style. I’m only guessing that Paramount didn’t want to deglamorize one of its buddy stars too much and wanted her to be recognizable on screen.

Arlen’s character is also hard to pin down. He at first takes pity on Nancy and then falls in love with her, but I get the feeling he’s somewhat subdued in defending her. He doesn’t really try to stand up to Arkansaw or Red to defend her and doesn’t try to take charge until he has a gun in his hand. But even then, you know that Red will turn the tables on him, which he does.

I don’t know enough about hobo life to comment on the film’s authenticity in that regard, but I do question one of the main points, the murder. The farmer was, after all, trying to rape his adoptive daughter, which one has to imagine was against the law even in the most rural of areas. The murder was therefore in self-defense. Now maybe you can tell me things were different back then, but I always wince when the plot is forwarded by dumb decisions.

William A. Wellman directing from on top of the train.

Despite the film’s shortcomings and lack of praise, Wellman considered it to be one of his favorites and his best silent film. In 1965, when the San Francisco International Film Festival was going to do a career retrospective on Wellman, he wanted them to show this film and had plans to bring Louise Brooks to the event. However, they couldn’t find a print of the film and Wings was shown instead.

While considered by some to be a hidden treasure, I was not as enamored with the film as I had hoped. However, there are so few films that survive from this era and so few films that star Louise Brooks survive (of her nearly two dozen films, six are lost or all but lost) that each one is therefore special. If you’re a fan of hers, of silent films or of the work of William A. Wellman, then you should see Beggars of Life.

For other Silent films, please see our Silent Film Review Hub.