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Heroes for Sale

Heroes for Sale(1933)

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Just in time for the deep economic recession of 2009 comes the DVD release of Heroes For Sale (1933), one of the key films made during the Great Depression to show the bleak realities of that era. There were plenty of other such films, but Heroes For Sale is one of the hardest hitting.

Richard Barthelmess stars as the everyman whose WWI combat heroics are wrongly credited to his best friend (Gordon Westcott) after Barthelmess is presumed dead. In reality, Barthelmess spends the rest of the war at a German POW camp, where due to his injuries he becomes addicted to morphine. Reunited with Westcott on the boat back home after the armistice is signed, he forgives his old friend and takes a job in the Westcott family bank. The drug addiction keeps him from working reliably, however, and he goes off the deep end. (The depiction of drug addiction is the main "pre-Code" element of the film.) After a stint in rehab, he starts a good job in a laundry business that also employs his new girlfriend, the stunning Loretta Young. But great success is followed by great calamity, and the rest of the story finds the economic hardships of the Depression taking their toll on Barthelmess and everyone else.

Perhaps most impressively, Heroes For Sale stays true to itself with a grim ending that does not offer much hope. (A tacked-on final scene half-heartedly tries to but fails.) After all, the picture was released in June 1933, a time when there was no end in sight to the Depression, and appropriately, the movie shows no end in sight either. The unrelenting nature of what we see is still extraordinarily powerful, mostly because director William Wellman is so skillful at making us experience it subjectively.

At its best, Heroes For Sale has something of a documentary-like feel, especially in its first third or so, in which the straightforwardness of the story and storytelling suggest a fatalism that would later become common in film noir. Later on, the picture devolves into melodrama, especially when Barthelmess becomes a bit too martyr-like to be believed, but overall Wellman knows how to keep things compelling, and his film tells more story in its first ten minutes than many movies do in two hours.

Watching Heroes For Sale, one marvels at the storytelling techniques that Wellman carried over from his silent-movie days. Scene after scene here can be watched with the sound off and still be clearly understood. Take a little sequence, for example, in which Barthelmess is committed to drug rehab and released. We see a doctor solemnly start to make a phone call; then a close-up of an index card, with Barthelmess's name and personal info, being stamped with the date and inserted into a drawer of hundreds of other cards; as the drawer closes, we fade out; fade in on the drawer being opened, the card removed, stamped with a "cured and discharged" label, and dated six months later; fade out and cut to a cemetery, where Barthelmess looks at his mother's gravestone, which tells us she died the day after he was sent to rehab; a pan to another gravestone tells us his father died many years earlier; cut back to Barthelmess looking more alone than ever as he walks away; fade out.

That sequence, without a word of dialogue, tells story, develops character and conveys emotion compellingly and economically. While there are indeed printed words within the shots (on the index card and gravestones), it's the shots themselves and the music that accompanies them that express all we need to know.

Barthelmess was one of the few silent stars to transition successfully from silents to talkies, though he is forgotten today. He delivers here, and is supported by Loretta Young, fine as always, and the delightfully warm character actors Charles Grapewin and Aline McMahon.

Heroes For Sale comes as part of Warner Home Video's welcome new box set Forbidden Hollywood Collection Vol. 3: William Wellman at Warner Bros. This is, obviously, the third collection of pre-Code movies to come from the Warner library, and it contains an important companion piece to Heroes For Sale in Wild Boys of the Road (1933), a similarly hard-hitting, powerful slice of the Great Depression. Also included are Other Men's Women (1931), Frisco Jenny (1932), The Purchase Price (1932) and Midnight Mary (1933), as well as two documentaries on Wellman, cartoons, trailers, and some enjoyable S.S. Van Dine mystery shorts. The one on Heroes For Sale is The Trans-Atlantic Mystery, which features Ray Collins in one of his earliest screen appearances, several years before he became one of Orson Welles' stock players. Three films in the set come with audio commentaries. Heroes For Sale's is by John Gallagher, who is well-versed in the career of Wellman, knows where everything was filmed, and has much firsthand information on the director from those who worked with him, but speaks surprisingly little about the film itself.

The six titles in this collection represent an impressive burst of creativity by Wellman between 1931 and 1933. It's even more impressive when one realizes that the man directed ten further films in the same span, including classics like Public Enemy (1931) and Night Nurse (1931). Of course, Wellman was a contract director, which means he was simply assigned these films and went out and did them, but they show more than someone just doing a job. They show a craftsman operating fluidly and expressively, injecting real emotion into his work and taking risks that pay off.

For more information about Heroes for Sale, visit Warner Video. To order Heroes for Sale (it is only available as part of the Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 3 set), go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold