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How to celebrate 100 years, part 2

November 23rd, 2006 (03:55 pm)

© 2006 D. Gordon

And now for the private celebration...

Beggars of Life has been described as the best surviving American movie featuring Louise Brooks. I'm not sure I agree with that - The Show Off, for example, is a pretty nifty little film - but it's got quite a few other things going for it. It's one of the first movies to be shot entirely on location and to use a boom mike (there are a couple of words on the soundtrack), and director William Wellman demanded that his stars perform most of their own stunts.

Louise goes androgynous here, when she goes on the lam with a young hobo after killing her stepfather in self-defense. Most of the film is spent on the road and rails, as the pair make their way towards Canada, navigating the obstacles of police searches and fellow hoboes all too able to sniff out a girl in boy's clothing (although she is wearing lipstick during most of this). Wallace Beery plays the main threat, Oklahoma Red, a bullying hobo who figures out that Louise is a she and decides to claim her. This may be a spoiler: the movie carries this Red threat to a peak, but then takes a common route to diffuse the obstacle: at the moment of crisis, confronted by the power of good, Oklahoma sees the error of his ways and stands down and repents. He does a bit of a Sydney Carton at the end to boot, adding a noble tone to the whole enterprise and giving the sense that the scales of justice have evened out - and they didn't even need that ol' wascally judicial system. A bit of a cop out.

A much bigger problem with the film is the film. There's supposed to be a wonderful newly-restored print at the George Eastman house that's both beautiful and engaging. This, however, is not the print I watched; mine was an nth-generation print from who knows where by way of Grapevine. There's a lesson about the importance of viewing quality behind all this: the print was just dark. Waaaay too dark. Dark enough that it's impossible to make out action in some places, and you see the intertitles get boosted until readable over and over again. There's a second lesson about musical accompaniment: Grapevine has been doing better in recent years, no longer just dropping a needle on a record and letting it play over and over again until the film's run out; but the music still doesn't fit the film and it affects the viewing experience.

That's one of the problems with being a fan of silents. Moving beyond the better-known titles may mean a choice between seeing a bad print (that Eastman print is available only to researchers, and music costs money) or seeing nothing at all. Many archives don't have the will / ability / desire / funds / I don't know what else to release the good stuff. Research is important, but how much does restoration help when the films are just as inaccessible to the general pubic as if they had been lost? I really don't know the answer (although I've never heard the archives' side of this). I just hope that one day some of these treasures become more available.