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In American pop culture, eruptions of social unrest, so inexplicably AWOL today, sizzled off movie screens in the 1930s. Heroes for Sale (1933), filmed with raw, gritty immediacy by the no-nonsense William Wellman, covers all the Depression-era bases. Perhaps even a few too many. It's crammed with plot, and the joinery lurches from casual to non-existent. But while it's ungainly, it's also unfailingly urgent and never boring, even when the characters stop talking in anything resembling human speech and start sounding like placards proclaiming a tacked-on message specifically, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's inaugural address punch line, that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.
Actually, the characters have plenty to fear. They just don't fear it, especially Richard Barthelmess's World War I veteran. After taking a shellacking from life, he's still upright at the end when he says, "It takes more than one sock on the jaw to lick a hundred and twenty people." Barthelmess, who came to fame as Lillian Gish's leading man for D.W. Griffith, was one of the handful of silent movie stars who enjoyed a career in the sound era. His Frank Merriwell grit gets quite a workout, starting in a scene of trench warfare, when he's painfully wounded and left for dead, another soldier gets credited for his act of heroism, and he's taken prisoner by the Germans. His wounds are treated, but as a result, he returns a morphine addict.
In contrast to the heated war propaganda of the WW I era, Heroes for Sale, while not going so far as to portray Germans sympathetically, does at least portray the German doctor as a humane and honorable man. Nor does it stigmatize Barthelmess's addict, Tom Holmes. When his addiction becomes apparent, he's sentenced to a state facility, goes cold turkey, and subsequently proves he's a man of character, several times over. The film reserves its contempt for the doughboy, a banker's son, who spinelessly appropriated Barthelmess's heroic act and returned home medal-bedecked. For keeping silent about what really happened, the real hero is rewarded with a job in the bank of the false hero's father. When the old man finds out about Tom's addiction, he sanctimoniously dismisses him. He epitomizes the film's perception of capitalist bosses failing America.
The tough matter-of-factness with which the WWI sequences are filmed stems in part from Wellman's own experience in the war, although he fought it from the cockpit of a primitive plane (only four controls, no parachute) as a member of the Lafayette Flying Squad. Later, of course, came the first Oscar® winner, Wings (1927), based on Wellman's war experiences. It invented the airplane movie genre and still has flying sequences that have never been surpassed. Wellman's image as a Hollywood wild man was fed by his practice of landing his plane on the polo field of his friend, Douglas Fairbanks, who got Wellman his first Hollywood jobs. Only a man who had experienced combat could open Heroes for Sale with a throwaway scene, as Wellman does, in which an officer sends ten men on a suicide mission because "that's all I can afford to lose."
Heroes for Sale is an odd mix of tough-mindedness and populist verve. The rehabbed Tom goes to Chicago, rents a room above a free soup kitchen run by kind-hearted Mary Dennis (Aline MacMahon), meets (and marries) fellow roomer Ruth Loring (Loretta Young), gets a job at the commercial laundry where she works, and loses no time proving himself a go-getter. He also deflects the comes-the-revolution ravings of another roomer, a self-declared communist (Robert Barrat). The film easily, if not quite naturally, reflects its Depression-era realities. Life is stark. And there's lots of class anger to go around. But Wellman and screenwriters Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner aren't about to buy into any isms. The communist is depicted as a buffoon. Later, when he gets rich from an invention that automates operations at the laundry, and Tom gets rich with him, the communist turns fervent capitalist, declaring that money is all, now that he has a lot of it. Thus, the film avoids confronting seriously any arguments for change by ridiculing the character who had advocated it, painting him as shallow and easily separated from his professed ideals.
But as Tom begins to climb the ladder he's slammed by a new set of circumstances. The kindly capitalist owner of the laundry dies. The machines they all thought would ease the workers' lot are used by the new owners to downsize the labor force. When the now unemployed workers march (in suits, collars, ties and hats!) on the laundry to smash the machines, Luddite-fashion, they're met by cops, thinly disguised minions of the owners of the means of production, who identify the interests of the bosses with the public good. Violence erupts, Tom's wife is killed when she's struck down by a cop's nightstick (leaving their son motherless), and he's jailed as a trouble-fomenting Red. Although his young son is cared for by the soup kitchen saint, with Tom pumping his share of the laundry machine royalties into the soup kitchen's upkeep, his troubles don't end.
No sooner is he released from prison, than he's run out of town by the local Red Squad. He rides the rails, lives in hobo jungles, even though he's roughed up at first by the other hoboes in this film that simultaneously romanticizes and takes a dim view of them. Squaring his jaw one last time, presumably motivated by something between penance and an urge to canonization, Barthelmess's classy Everyman embraces life on the road. Refusing to succumb to cynicism, and anything but a broken man (one cynically remembers that his was the name above the film's title, and the one used to sell tickets), he proclaims his (well, FDR's) upbeat message, anticipating Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.
If that ringingly pro-proletarian work, and soul mates like The Cradle Will Rock, seem bolder-contoured and more proclamatory, films such as Heroes for Sale -- half-digested as they are, ring more true, more powerful, strike a deeper chord precisely because they are less self-consciously message films, and more like daily newspapers being slammed out under deadline pressure. They simmer with tabloid vigor, fielding the realities as they unfolded in America's collective experience, with no time to digest them or reflect upon them. It's very much reactive cinema, not reflective cinema. As such, it avoids the pitfalls of message-mongering, letting texture and details not speeches -- carry the message.
It's material well-suited to the muscular style of Wellman, who used real hoboes in the hobo scenes and real laundry workers in the laundry scenes, and told an interviewer in Film Comment that he never shot a scene more than twice. Later in 1933, he followed Heroes for Sale with Wild Boys of the Road, another film steeped in the realities of the Depression, again ending with a voice of hope (Barrat, the buffoon caricature of communism in Heroes for Sale, this time as a judge who gives four wayward boys another chance). This may have been rooted in Wellman's admiring view of the lifelong work of his beloved mother, a probation officer in Massachusetts (she gave him his lifelong nickname, Wild Bill, saying that she could bring any boy into line but her own son!). Both of these Depression-era films are about hanging in there until a new day dawns on a new deal. Or, rather, New Deal. Pungent, richly-textured and strongly-felt, Heroes for Sale, about a hero who is not for sale, deserves to be better known.
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: William A. Wellman
Screenplay: Robert Lord, Wilson Mizner
Cinematography: James Van Trees
Film Editing: Howard Bretherton
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Music: Leo F. Forbstein
Cast: Richard Barthelmess (Thomas Holmes), Aline MacMahon (Mary Dennis), Loretta Young (Ruth Loring Holmes), Gordon Westcott (Roger Winston), Robert Barrat (Max Brinker), Berton Churchill (Mr. Winston).
by Jay Carr
A Short Time for Insanity: An Autobiography, by William A. Wellman
William A. Wellman, by Frank T. Thompson
Wild Bill: William A. Wellman, 1978 interview by Scott Eyman in Focus on Film #29, reprinted in Film Comment, 2004