Catching up on some of the silent films released to Blu-ray and DVD in the past months…
Beggars of Life (Kino Lorber)
William Wellman was one of the most versatile directors of his day, making everything from comedies and musicals to gritty dramas and war movies, and his World War I epic Wings (1927) won the first Academy Award for Best Film, but in the late 1920s and 1930s he directed some of the most interesting films about struggles before and during the depression. Beggars of Life(1928) was made before the stock market crash but released in the aftermath, so while it’s not technically a response to the Depression, its portrait of hoboes riding the rails and forming a kind of outsider society was in tune with the times. Today, however, it is best known for Louise Brooks, the petit dancer turned actress who never became a star in America in her lifetime but starred in two great German silent films, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, and became a cult figure in retirement.
Brooks is Nancy, a young woman who kills her violent stepfather in self-defense (presented as a flashback, it’s a startling and powerful scene which Brooks underplays with haunting pain), and Richard Arlen is Jim, a boyish beggar who stumbles across the body and helps her escape. He dresses her in men’s clothes and teachers her how to ride the rails with the rest of the tramps on the road, landing in a rough hobo camp where Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) rules through intimidation. Figuring out that this delicate “boy” is actually a girl (and seriously, who was she fooling?), he claims Nancy as his property and puts the couple through a kangaroo court, a great scene that straddles comedy and horror. Beery delivers a big, blustery performance as he transforms from predator to protector, the handsome Arlen at times he reminded me of a young Paul Newman, and Brooks is incandescent in her best role in an American films (she immediately left for Europe to make the movies that made her reputation).
Behind the Door (1919) (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) was for decades a film known by reputation only. A good film, yes, but more than that a notorious one, for what lay behind the door was… No spoilers because the film, once known to exist only in incomplete form, has been reconstructed and restored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and released on disc by Flicker Alley. Its reputation proves well-earned.
Hobart Bosworth plays Captain Oscar Krug, an American seaman of German ancestry who left the sea for life ashore for the love of a woman. But in the opening moments of the film he’s a haunted man returning to the ghosts of the past in his old taxidermy shop, now a ransacked ruin choked by dust and shadow. His story plays out in the shadow of this resignation, a sunnier time when he was in love with banker’s daughter Alice (Jane Novak) and respected by his New England community. A jealous suitor uses the outbreak of World War I to whip up anti-German hysteria (which, in 1919, was not that distant a memory) but the two-fisted patriot wins over the mob with a roundhouse of a brawl and a rousing proclamation to do his duty, as every American should. He bonds with his opponent, McTavish (James Gordon), over the brawl and a few cuts later Krug is captaining an American naval ship, the Perth, with McTavish as his loyal mate and friend. And Alice stows aboard, kicked out by her possibly-crooked, definitely-shady banker father, ready to do her duty as a nurse. Then the unmistakable conning tower of a submarine rises from the surface of the sea and German U-boat commander Brandt (Wallace Beery) torpedoes and sinks the Perth with far too much malicious glee. If director Irvin Willat makes a point of celebrating the patriotism of German-Americans, he brands the German enemy with the familiar stereotype of the bloodthirsty Hun.
The rest of the story is best discovered on your own because it’s a doozy of a portrait of war crimes and gruesome revenge.