Friday, December 11, 2009

Beggars in Ermine (1934), Phil Rosen.

Beggars in Ermine is a strange film full of unsettling images and ideas.   The story is that the well-liked owner of a steel mill, John "Flint" Dawson, loses everything including his wife to his second-in command, an enemy named Marley.  Marley tries to have Dawson murdered on the job, but the attempt fails, leaving Dawson severely handicapped.  Marley then wrests control of the company using power of attorney.  Suddenly the once prosperous Dawson is legless and destitute, unable even to pay for his private hospital room.

The film then moves into the realm of social issues, making it much more of a historical artifact than other films I have seen from the same time period.  We see Dawson find companionship amongst other men in his position: mainly previously able-bodied men transformed into society's rejects due to work accidents, illness, and some by congenital handicaps.  Dawson and his new friend, a blind accordionist, wander the country seeking to connect with the massive but largely invisible body of licensed beggars, men scraping by selling pencils and other trinkets.   Dawson sees great potential in this invisible army and organizes the beggars into a private society.  He then collects a membership fee of sorts, invests this and eventually regains his lost wealth but also brings material comforts to the members who had previously been left to the streets.  Actor Lionel Atwill's performance gives Dawson an irrepressible nobility, despite having been reduced to beggary.

It's possible some might think this is a story about rehabilitating the image of the working man, bringing dignity to the handicapped and celebrating collectivism.   I would instead say this is a story that celebrates the capitalist.   Whether or not he is liked by either his workers or the members of his society, this is a story of a wealthy industrialist who regains his wealth off of the backs of many.  By the end of the film, Dawson has control of his steel mill once again, and has Marley trapped in one of the offices.  Having achieved his main goal, he turns into a bit of a cruel fascist.  The final scene shows Dawson wheeling himself onto a balcony to placate a crowd of angry factory workers, the very image of a monarch waving to his subjects.

Transforming this novel (credited to Esther Lynd Day, an author that I could find absolutely no information on) into film posed some challenges that Monogram was not fully equipped to overcome.  Key scenes were shot on the site of a steel processing facility (I assume).  Yet there was difficulty capturing sound in outdoor scenes and, as can be seen below, the cameraman is quite visibly casting a shadow in one panning shot!  Still, a complex story and ambitious project for Monogram.


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