I can’t imagine what took me so long to get to this one, for those who know me know that I love sprinkling in hobo-talk at any opportunity. It’s one of my favorite modifiers, my association with things considered poorly crafted or shoddy via a hobo tag something of an addiction. If you’re wearing worn-out sneakers, I might just ask where you got those hobo-shoes. If pouring a particularly cheap brand of whiskey, I’ll likely ask why you’re serving me that hobo-swill. If dealt a particularly nasty hand of cards, I will almost certainly put my cigar out on your eyeball and query as to the reason a hobo-deck was employed. Not surprisingly, films that feature a healthy array of hobos delight me to no end, especially when those characters really, really bum it up. To make today’s list, I was looking for the hallmarks of your classic tramp. Shoddy clothing, poor hygiene, unstable mental functions, lack of housing, and trashcan fires were especially prized: those with more than one of these attributes flying fast up the rankings. Though you might consider them hobos in the classic sense of the word, the town drunk was considered, yet ultimately cast aside, for that’s a whole other list, and very western-heavy. I want to give special mention to Charlie Day and Danny DeVito, for if ever there was a pair of hobos that I wanted to put on here, it was those two for the “Gang Finds A Dumpster Baby” episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. At this time, however, baring special circumstances, television shows are not featured on the 10rant, so I had to hold off (regrettably).
Other noteworthy hobos that nearly made the cut included the bum from Batman Begins, and the bench-sleeping hobo from Back to the Future. Both of them came into the mix early in the feature, then returned for a fairly satisfying payoff later on, yet I didn’t feel the respective films gave anywhere near the necessary time to the fellas, so I passed. Also, while it broke my heart to do it, I couldn’t see to putting Harpo Marx on the list, for he usually had a scheme going on, and was less a bum and more a grifter in hobo’s clothing. Adrien Brody’s turn in The Pianist was considered, yet ultimately tossed out, for he was a hobo in everything except spirit. Besides, every displaced Holocaust victim might be considered something of a hobo if we take a step down that slippery slope, and when in doubt, I side with Hebrews and wouldn’t do anything to cast any hobo-aspersions upon them. In a similar vein, I threw out The Road entirely, as that movie (along with most apocalypse films) is pretty much a hobo-landscape peppered with bits of hope here and there, which doesn’t really make things fair. The Soloist was also considered, but that heart-string-pulling piece of shit doesn’t deserve distribution, let alone mention on so honorable a forum as the 10rant. Jet Li from Unleased also came close to a ranking, yet failed, as did the hobo in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, and Nick Nolte’s well-intentioned turn in Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Also, you won’t find Hobo With a Shotgun, for that’s barely a movie. Anyway, crack open your can of beans and pull your stray mutt in close, ‘cause I’m getting this party started.
I was on the fence with this one for a while, and almost didn’t rank it because the movie made absolutely no excuses about its overwhelming sentimentality. Replete with a Madonna-helmed soundtrack and a plot that would give the writers of Grey’s Anatomy a moment of pause, I decided to slot this only because it sported an uncharacteristically strong performance by Joe Pesci. Brendan Fraser played a right-leaning Government grad-student, Monty, in the middle of his final semester at Harvard, his thesis all but completed. Because God seems to hate students that rely on their computers and nothing else, Monty’s hard drive got wiped and left just a single physical copy of his thesis which the kid had wisely printed out. On his way to make duplicates, Monty tripped, broke his ankle, and dropped his thesis down a steam vent that led to the co-opted home of a local hobo, Pesci’s “Simon.” Savvy old man that he was, Simon used the thesis as leverage to milk the uptight Monty for all he was worth, and after a brief incarceration, cut a deal to get a service for each page of the thesis that was returned.
Pesci’s character was pretty much the best part of this sappy tear-jerker: most of the characters hastily drawn with thematic connections a nine-year-old could understand. (Monty had trust issues because his father left his family; Simon left his own family to join the Merchant Marines, a decision that ultimately left him with a fatal respiratory condition, blah, blah, blah). As a free-spirited hobo, however, Pesci did his level best, and actually came through with some endearing scenes. Most of his quips actually elicit a chuckle upon repeat viewings, and his vocal disdain for Republican ideology warms the heart. Though he was locked inside a pretty empty movie trying very hard to needle its audience into giving a shit, his defiant attitude and culinary skills pushed him into contention, and thus earned him a #10 slot.
How did this happen? How is it that this was the last film Hughes gave us? Maybe he was simply a man who had had enough, and didn’t need us any longer. This certainly cannot be said for the world he left behind, for there were and are few filmmakers with the capacity to perfectly capture that which is so difficult to convey. Adolescence is a delicate moment in any person’s life, and escapes much like water through the hands. When we’re going through it, we’re mostly too thick and inarticulate to frame those things that are happening all around us. By the time we’ve passed it, we’re usually so disgusted with the people we were and content to admire that which we’ve become that a rehashing seems neither wise nor necessary. Hughes never seemed to forget all those moments that make up a lifetime of experiences over the course of half a dozen years, and somehow managed to craft films that unobtrusively told the forgotten and buried stories of every American boy or girl on their way to becoming men and women. Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day off: all of them touched upon something that nobody else has ever seemed to capture, yet many have tried to repeat.
And then you have Curly Sue, a movie Hughes seemed to have made almost as a final ‘screw-you’ to a world that had come to want, nay, need to hear truth from so reliable a source. Having operated for so long on the edge of genuine, Hughes seemed to have taken one last turn toward the absurd: as if the truth hurt too much, and he could take it no longer. It wasn’t a bad movie, to be sure. It was about a young girl and her hobo-father travelling the country, grifting their way to small chunks of change via low-level short-cons that saw them through to their next meal. The pair were hobos through-and-through, though. They lived on the streets (mostly), wore shitty clothes, survived by the hand of others, and the dad (Belushi’s character) didn’t have a job through 98% of the film. There was some small delight in watching the bums scam their way into a rich broad’s house and teach her how to get free popcorn and movie admission, yet the kernel of truth so blatant in Hughes’ films up to that point was unmistakably gone. A good hobo-movie, sure, yet the thing we had come to expect from a man who had selflessly given his childhood heart to the world? Regrettably, no.
Like Curly Sue, this one also falls within the “hobo-makes-good” family of movie-vagrancy, whereby a street urchin is given a shot at a better life and eventually climbs up and out of the refuse to become a powerful, respected individual. You’d think Hollywood had some vested interest in making these pictures, what with the redemptive plot-lines involving transient vagabonds, yet this cultural demographic rarely buys movie tickets or DVD’s, so one has to wonder why it keeps popping up? Perhaps it’s simply an amusing anecdote for all of us working saps: that somewhere a filthy pan-handler we’ve all passed will one day overcome the odds and get the girl. If that’s what milks your cow, then more power to ya. For my own part, I couldn’t give a shit, unless, of course, that hobo is exacting some kind of revenge, in which case I’m on-board! Such was the case with this flick, where Valentine (Eddie Murphy) was thrust into a social experiment by a couple of commodity brokers who wanted to see if a bum could quickly assume a position of power if immersed in the good life. Conversely, they wanted to know if their protégé Louis (Dan Aykroyd) would revert to a life of crime if similarly yanked from his environment and thrown penniless into the gutter.
The plot played out as one might expect, with Louis sinking deeper and deeper into alcohol, poverty, and despair while Valentine quickly proved himself worthy of the heightened social status wrapped about his shoulders. Once the pair caught on to the scam and realized they’d both be discarded after the results had come in, they banded together to ruin the lives of the asshole brothers that had gleefully upended theirs. Murphy’s “Valentine” was at his funniest when still a hobo, in my humble opinion, the scam he had going in Central Park as a blind and legless Vietnam veteran was absolutely classic. As a special bonus, this movie also supplied an awesome hobo cameo in a subsequent Eddie Murphy vehicle, Coming To America, where the audience got to see the impoverished Randolph and Mortimer bumming it up on a cold New York night. Good hobo-filming all-around, I say!
In this one, Cusack played “Harry,” a depression-era hobo with a knack for train-hopping and bean-cooking, something that immediately got him into healthy contention for this list. Tossed out of his shanty-town because the bulls got tired of his and his cohorts’ non-working ways, Harry took to watching out for Natty and her wolf side-kick. Not that the two needed much supervision, for if there was one thing that 1930s America produced in excess, it was orphans and animal side-kicks (at least if you take the word of the films of the period). For her part, Natty was trying to get herself to Washington State to reunite with her pop, as the old man had left to get work in the timber industry before he could find his daughter to tell her he would indeed be back. Natty wasn’t one to stick around and get man-handled by the hotel proprietor watching out for her, and followed an old hobo tradition of riding the rails to get the hell out of town. This is where she initially met Harry, and started a friendship that saw the pair through some pretty rough times.
Along the way, the two relied heavily on their wolf companion, as well as a pretty hefty serving of luck to get them halfway across the country. Of course, being a hobo, Harry wasn’t terribly happy about having to cart around a kid and her carnivorous side-kick, yet he quickly found respect for the beast after it clocked what appeared to be about 30 mph and jumped itself into a moving freight car. A hobo in the classic tradition, Harry was pretty good deep-down, and helped get the film’s main character at least part of the way to her destination. Classic hobo that he was, though, he split once he got some work, and had a meal-ticket promised and in waiting. For this, he got a nod.
Besides combining the collected magnificence of both Ice’s (T and Cube), this movie did pretty good for itself. It showcased a worthy performance from the always-reliable Bill Paxton, and involved a gold heist from a condemned section of East-St. Louis that would make parts of Kabul look inviting. In Trespass, a pair of firefighters had discovered a treasure map during a call to an apartment complex, and learned that a stash of ill-gotten Catholic relics had been hidden away in an abandoned neighborhood on the other side of the tracks. Once they discovered the abandoned tenements, they quickly found the correct unit and started ripping through the place to locate the gold. Unfortunately, they stumbled upon a gangland assassination and got into all kinds of hot water with the local warlord…err, gang boss, Ice-T’s “King James.” They took the King’s junky brother hostage to negotiate some time and a possible escape, but things quickly went to shit. Their one saving grace was a local hobo, Bradlee, who had been living in the condemned housing project and knew a bit about the local crime-scene and metallurgy.
Things spiraled out of control pretty quickly because of a split within King James’ command structure, and before the firefighters knew it, they were in a raging inferno lit by the gangsters in an attempt to smoke them out. While one of them did escape, he did so without the gold, for that went to the wily Bradlee, who had been able to sneak the loot out somehow while bullets, a ceiling, and half the damn world came crashing down around his head. Somehow, hobo-Bradlee was able to negotiate a couple greedy firemen, the local crime syndicate, and a full-blown five-alarm fire and still get a hulking sack of gold out for the keeping. Not a small feat for a guy that looked like he was pushing 60 and without a home or job to speak of.
Yet another hobo-makes-good film, this one had a bit more depth to it than a lot of the films listed today. Without delving too far into the tangentially related Arthurian legend that provided the foundation for the plot, let’s just say that the film was about charity, forgiveness, and redemption. Jeff Bridges’ “Jack Lucas” had been a fantastically successful radio shock-jock before he accidentally talked a maniac into gunning down scores of people inside a Manhattan nightclub. After a few years of public disgrace, he found himself drunk, shiftless, and working part-time in a video rental shop with his girlfriend. After getting about seven fingers through a bottle of whiskey, Jack decided to anchor himself with concrete and toss his worthless ass into the Hudson, only to be saved at the last minute by the hobo-knight Parry (Robin Williams).
Jack learned that Parry had been in the nightclub massacre for which the D.J. was responsible, and took it upon himself to get the vagrant back on his feet. Parry wasn’t your run-of-the-mill hobo, however: he was legitimately troubled. Williams’ character was haunted by an imaginary Red Knight figure that reappeared every time Parry found any shred of self-confidence, and haunted the poor bastard with symbolic images of his deceased wife’s murder. Jack stuck with him, however, and worked to get Parry not only a date, but the elusive “Grail” which seemed to be the lynchpin of his psyche. As a hobo, Parry demonstrated all the hallmarks of your classic street-sleeper, what with the rag-like clothing, shanty housing, and severe mental instability. To get anywhere near this level of hobo-awesomeness, we’ll have to shift gears and get into a far better genre: hobo reciprocity…
Oh, man! We’re getting into juicy territory now: the hobo-revenge territory! Personally, while I’m not a guy who fears the hobo, I’m certainly not one to fuck with them. In the proud tradition of Hollywood, I think it has been clearly established that to do so is at the peril of one’s own life, and is an unwise move in any setting or period. You never know what you’re getting into when rolling up against a vagrant, so your best course of action is probably to back off and give a wide berth. Certainly, one shouldn’t presume that it would be easy to screw with a person down on their luck just because they stink and have nowhere to live. Take Ice-T’s “Mason,” for example. He fit all the necessary criteria for the standard movie hobo (dumpster-diving, shanty-camps, trashcan fires, etc.). This guy wasn’t anything special; a simple electrician with no real military training or outdoors experience to speak of, yet inside he had the heart of a lion, and fangs (metaphorical) to match.
Charles S. Dutton’s character seemed like a kind-hearted Christian outreach member looking to rehabilitate a suicidal street-rat, and hooked Ice-T up with a gig leading a bunch of rich dudes around the forest for a wilderness retreat. What Mason realized once out of civilization was that he’d been hand-picked to act as the mark for Dutton and his group of middle-aged C.I.A. operatives who hunted humans for sport so as to keep their edge. Turned loose into the bush, Mason had to rely on his cunning and resilience (for the cowardly bitches running the show didn’t give the hobo so much as a sharp stick to play with). Mason slowly went from whimpering survivalist to hard-hearted hunter, eventually looking not only to survive, but to exact his vengeance upon those who had underestimated a man with nothing to lose. With the exception of John C. McGinley and F. Murray Abraham’s son, Mason took all the bastards down, showing what can happen to an elite caste of pricks who think themselves better than the dregs of society they looked upon through tinted BMW windows. Yet to speak about hobo revenge and not mention this next film would be a crime, for few did hobo-revenge better than…
Hell to the yeah, folks. If you slept on this movie, get your ass out of the house and pick up a copy of this oft-overlooked gem, for it doesn’t get a whole lot better than this. John Carpenter is usually a pretty reliable friend in the American cinematic cannon, and he certainly didn’t disappoint with this offering. It followed the plights of two men: Roddy Piper’s “George” and Keith David’s “Frank,” both of them hobos in the classic sense of the word, yet with different outlooks on their past, present and future. Near the beginning of the film, the audience found them both hard at work doing menial physical labor off the books, only to retreat to a Hooverville-style shantytown at the end of the day. After filling their bellies with soup-kitchen fare and staring wistfully at the cityscape before them, the optimistic George spoke of his trust in the American way of life while Frank’s pessimistic views came to the fore. While George said he believed in the U.S. and the ability of every man to succeed if given an honest chance, Frank barked vindictively about a system that was fixed from the get-go, and gave chances only to those with money and connections.
What the pair came to realize was that both were wrong: there was no America any longer, but rather a country run by skin-less aliens in full disguise, trying like all hell to harvest our planet’s mineral resources and enslave the less-fortunate to their purposes. Of course, one could only tell the difference between the intruders and actual humans with special sunglasses (later they would find upgraded contact lenses), which gave the wearer a clear picture of the face of their enemy. Once Frank and George got a hard look at their reality, one which was subliminally culling the remaining humans to sleep via advertising and materialistic pursuits, shit was on! The hobos linked up with a resistance movement hell-bent on taking the planet back, and a bloodbath ensued that saw all those dirty alien fuckers exposed for what they were. Though the hobo-duo might have been dejected and on the fringes of society at the beginning of the picture, by the end they were fighting for the freedom of all man-kind, and had redeemed both themselves and the human race. Not bad for a couple of bums.
When it comes to hobo-revenge, you have to stand atop the peak this movie formed, and look down at all other contenders, for it doesn’t get any better than this. Sure, Frank and George saved the entire human race in They Live, yet nobody was left alive at the end of that one, and I’d like to think that during all those years of cracking rocks in the shithouse that Rambo enjoyed a level of satisfaction and pride impossible for the honorable, yet dead, Frank and George. I’d like to think that this film changed people a bit, that after the first installment of the Rambo franchise, that folks took a moment of pause before hassling a scraggly drifter passing through their midst. John Rambo wasn’t looking for any trouble when he approached the town of Hope, Washington, yet Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) didn’t give a shit. The haughty lawman didn’t like the look of the kid and thought his presence might shatter the picturesque quality of his safe little existence. Unkempt, without a place to stay, or any job to speak of, Teasle thought it prudent to escort Rambo through the town and see to it that the drifter did not evolve into a hobo. The Constitution being what it is, however, the sheriff didn’t exactly have the right to do that. While many of you out there might like to see your local law enforcement officials round up undesirables and ferry them off to some other part of the world, the plain fact of the matter is that everybody has the right to move around this country so long as they aren’t breaking any laws (well, except in Arizona).
Rambo knew this, and tried his best to force the issue, yet small-town politics came down hard on his ass and the Vietnam vet. was locked up on a vagrancy charge before he could say “Bill of Rights.” Quickly broken free of the shitty jail and into the wild, Rambo proved he wasn’t one to be screwed with, and got to work taking apart the half-assed posse sent to track him. Oh, and when the National Guard heavies dared to step to the guy and about blew Rambo’s ass to Saturn, then ol’ Johnny took it up a notch. After he had escaped from an abandoned mine shaft and hijacked an ammo truck, Rambo got busy dismantling the small town of Hope like he was baking a fucking cake. In a little under fifteen minutes Rambo had laid waste to an entire community and sent all the cops packing (or to the hospital). And all of this could have been avoided if Teasle had simply let the kid get something to eat, or, later, “let it go.” Never underestimate the pride of a small-town cop, however, nor the half-mad hobo fresh from the ‘Nam who simply shouldn’t be messed with.
While I have a soft spot in my heart for hobo-revenge flicks, it’s hard to argue against the definitive character for Mr. Chaplin, and perhaps Hollywood as a whole, as The Tramp was so crucial to the formation and imagining of each. For both the actor and the institution, there were roles and characters before and after the Tramp, yet there was never a more important one than this iconic figure. The absolute standard in every sense of the word, the Tramp came to embody all that was noble and good in the new medium. He was the everyman, the reflection of a movie’s audience insofar as it was possible to encapsulate so broad a spectrum. The beaten-down citizen with inextinguishable pride and moxie, the Tramp rarely succeeded, yet never gave up. He was kindness in the face of anger, retribution in response to injustice, and the unapologetic folly within every imperfect human. Though he was constantly harassed and pursued for misunderstandings and misadventures through no fault of his own, his spirit remained intact and his optimistic approach to a life not at all within his control remained steadfast. Dressed in shoddy clothing via pants too big and a coat too small, the Tramp operated in a world of quiet exuberance where the simplest of pleasures brought the most outstanding rewards.
Chaplin always portrayed his most famous character with the flaws inherent amongst all humans, yet never really gave his audience a redemptive or happy ending, for in real life, there rarely was one. Because of him, Hollywood developed a formula as unshakable as the Tramp’s character, and churned out reams of stock characters that faced adversity and disappointment only to persevere, if simply in spirit, at the end of the day. Though films usually gave its audiences happier endings than those provided by Mr. Chaplin, the basic formula of his everyman has grown into a character staple which provides the foundation of almost every hero known in cinema this last century. Imbued with the never-say-die spirit of America and the films that propagate this ideal, the Tramp represented the best of this country. Chaplin’s character gave the world a gift that had existed in name-only prior to the invention of motion pictures, yet found a face because one man saw the possibility of a person so noble.
Copyright – Warren J. Cantrell