If the recent Ted Williams fiasco taught us anything, it’s that people are fascinated by hobos. And it’s easy to see why. After all, they’re a perplexing bunch. What drove these vagabonds to a life on the street? How do they manage to survive? Do they know they smell like urine? Could it happen to me?
Perhaps this fascination explains the buzz around the new film, Hobo with a Shotgun. Based on the Grindhouse trailer of the same name, the film tells the story of a homeless man who becomes a gun wielding vigilante hellbent on saving the very society that abandoned him. People love an underdog story, and there’s no bigger underdog than a hob fighting his way to the top one shell at a time.
But the film’s titular hobo is far from the first. From Hollywood’s earliest days, down and out characters found their way to the silver screen. Here are 9 other hobos you might recognize (sans shotguns).
The term hobo has become synonymous with words like “homeless” and “bum.” But that wasn’t always the case. Back in the early 20th century, a hobo was a poor migrant worker who went from place to place seeking work. This stood in sharp contrast to a bum or a beggar, who would rather take a hand out than make an honest living. So as a shout out to all the real hobos out there, I’ve included George and Lennie, the two famous hobos from Of Mice and Men. I’m keeping it real.
One of the earliest and most beloved cinematic characters is Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Widely considered the most iconic character of the silent film era, the Tramp appeared in numerous shorts and features. Audiences could easily relate to a man on the fringe of society who managed to maintain his dignity and good humor despite overwhelming odds. He was also sympathetic because unlike most tramps, Chaplin’s character didn’t tend to get high on crack cocaine and urinate in apartment lobbies.
Chaplin wasn’t the only comedic genius to take interest in a homeless character. Mel Brooks also took up the theme with his 1991 film, Life Stinks. However, unlike The Tramp, Brooks played Goddard Bolt, a wealthy CEO who agrees to go homeless for 30 days in order to win a bet. As you’d expect, Bolt gets more than he bargained for, and realizes that life on the streets is far worse than he had imagined. But as you wouldn’t expect, he somehow avoids getting beaten to death by his fellow vagrants.
As long as we’re dealing with comedic geniuses like Brooks and Chaplin, I think I should throw Weird Al Yankovic into the mix. While the homeless character from his 1989 film UHF might not have much going for him in the name department (he’s credited as “Bum”), he’s certainly a key element to the plot. Plus, unlike most hobos, when this bum asks for change, he’s only trying to break a dollar.
Can a down and out homeless man be successfully integrated into high society? Clearly not. Just ask Ted Williams. But Hollywood disagrees. For example, in Trading Places, two millionaires (Duke and Duke) decide to put the nature vs. nurture debate to the test by framing another millionaire, reducing him to vagrancy, and then replacing him with a hobo named Billy Ray Valentine. As it turns out, life as a street hustler is not that different from a life in high finance.
When hobo Jerry Baskin decides to end his life, he heads for the closest swimming pool he can find and tries to drown himself. However, the home’s wealthy owner saves the vagrant, and decides to let Jerry stay at the house until he can get back on his feet. I forget how it ends, but I assume Jerry rapes and murders the wealthy man’s family, and then wears their skin as a suit.
Contrary to what the previous films on this list may have led you to believe, being a hobo isn’t all shits and giggles. In fact, if Midnight Cowboy is to be believed, it’s got a lot more to do with having gay sex for money and dying a slow, painful death. Who knew?
What I took away from The Fisher King is that if you’re going to be homeless, you might as well have some fun with it. That’s what Parry does. Instead of facing the real world, he pretends to be a gallant knight fighting dragons and storming castles. Some people would call him a paranoid schizophrenic, but those people simply lack imagination!
In The Pursuit of Happyness, Will and Jaden Smith play a real-life father and son who survive by living in a subway while trying to make ends meet. While I was happy that the characters found a happy ending, from time to time, I still find myself wishing that both Will and Jaden Smith were actually homeless.