There are some curios that were released during the early thirties in those glorious days of Pre code Hollywood (1929 to mid-1934). The treatment of women, the institution of marriage and reverence to the Church, lead of by the Catholic Legion of Decency, are some of the subjects often under fire. Hence that is what makes this Monogram Studios picture BEGGARS IN ERMINE (1933) an interesting stop. It flows like a combination of FREAKS (1932) and a socialist manifesto for the common worker.
BEGGARS IN ERMINE (1933) stars Lionel Atwill as John ‘Flint’ Dawson, aka John Daniels, who, at this time in his career, specialized in quirky and darkly menacing roles. Dawson is a tycoon who owns a very successful steel mill. He’s an unusual boss; he goes to work with the men in the mill. He has his lunch pail placed where his men have theirs with a special label on it warning against touching it. A large corporation wants to buy up his mill but Dawson has no interest in selling. Big business will not be denied.
In strong sequences for the time, Dawson’s legs were burned off by molten steel deliberately poured on him by a crane operator who was caught drinking on the job the night before. Dawson spends the next several months in the hospital. He returns with the use of a wheelchair to find out that the Corporation has bought the mills from his wife Vivian (Astrid Allyn). She in turn ran off to Europe with the proceeds. Dawson has a daughter Joyce (Betty Furness) and a son Lee (James Bush) who try but cannot help him.
Left with no money and no business except to beg on the street, he meets Marchant the Blind Man (Henry B. Walthal), with whom he shared a room with while in hospital. The two strike up a partnership to work together in which Marchant boasts ‘will never be a dull day’. Dawson forms a union with the disabled beggars on the street. With his business contacts and manners he helps them find gainful employment, invest their earnings, and obtain health and retirement plans. He invests the dues and slowly creates his fortune again with himself as the head of the union. Many twists and turns along the way and the final result make for intriguing, if not slightly quirky, viewing.
BEGGARS IN ERMINE (1933) was directed by Phil Rosen for Monogram Studios and looks every inch a poverty row production. The sets seem to work well even if they are redresses from other productions and made to multitask. The steel mill footage used is from an industrial film as we see workers tossing bits of slag into huge molten vats and large cranes pouring the mixtures into molds with sparks and glowing material looking good in black and white. I have worked in steel fabrication so it was interesting to see the labor practices and equipment used with an absence of safety gear and employee protection that are the norm today.
Lionel Atwill was an amazing actor with his inspired role choices. Toward the end of his career, though, those choices were driven by necessity. Atwill’s nickname was “Pinky” in Hollywood society. To be invited to one of Pinky’s parties was an honor and very secret. One such party went too far and Atwill “lied like a gentleman” in the court proceedings to protect the identities of his guests and was convicted of perjury and sentenced to five years’ probation. The scandal cost him his career, dooming him to poverty row work till his death from lung cancer in 1946. It is a stretch to believe the very proper speaking Dawson existing within the confines of steel mill and its cast of rough characters. It was Hollywood’s idea of the lunch pail brigade.
The sequence when the molten steel is poured on Dawson is handled similarly to Atwill’s death scene with a snake in MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933). In that picture, Atwill’s character of Eric Gorman meets his demise in silence, which is even more insidious given that the snake was a python. You hear no screams from Dawson as he lays on the floor getting tended to by his men. You never see the molten material or his legs, as they are obscured by convenient plumes of smoke.
BEGGARS IN ERMINE (1933) offers a look at a segment of society that was, and is still, marginalized: the worker with a lost limb(s) or eyes as result of accident in their occupation. Towards the end of the picture Dawson has decided to resign his leadership of the Union. The members are in dinner jackets, suits etc. in large ballroom. In a moment reminiscent of FREAKS (1932), director Phil Rosen shows a wide shot of the men expressing displeasure with the decision.
The men are in wheel chairs, on crutches, have broken limbs and raise their broken bodies or apparatus, shouting in anger. This moment may also foreshadow the coming of the wounded and maimed from Second World War and the present victims of the First War that would be in the population.
BEGGARS IN ERMINE (1933) is not your average Hollywood look at the goings on in a steel mill. It is a story worth seeing for the actors, the attempt and doing something different that is almost subversive for that period in time.
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