Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This post is the latest addition in our series of Pre-Code Essentials. Here’s the updated list.
55. Heroes For Sale (1933)
A veteran fights drug addiction to make his way in the business world. Starring Richard Barthelmess, Aline MacMahon, Loretta Young, Gordon Westcott, Robert Barrat, Berton Churchill, and Grant Mitchell. Screenplay by Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner. Directed by William A. Wellman. Distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures.
“During World War I, Lieutenant Roger Winston (Westcott) is assigned to capture a German prisoner. Overcome by fear, he hides in a foxhole while Tom Holmes (Barthelmess), another soldier from the same town, carries out the mission. On the way back, Tom is struck by a shell and Roger returns with the prisoner. Roger is promoted and decorated for bravery. Returning to America after the war, Roger meets Tom, who he believed to be dead. Tom’s life was saved by the Germans, but in the prisoner of war camp, he took morphine for his pain and is now addicted to the drug. Roger gets Tom a job in his father’s bank, but his addiction gets him fired. He is sent to a sanitarium where he overcomes his addiction but in the meantime, his mother dies from the disgrace. Tom goes to Chicago to look for a job and there he meets Ruth (Young), a young woman who works in a laundry. They fall in love, marry, and have a child. Max (Barrat), a socialist who lives in the same roominghouse, invents a laundry machine.
“Tom, who is now employed at the laundry, convinces his fellow workers to invest in the machine, but when the benevolent laundry owner dies, the new owners use the machine to lay off workers. The fired workers riot, Ruth is killed, and Tom is sent to prison for five years, even though he tried to prevent the mob from attacking the laundry. Max makes a lot of money from his invention and gives half to Tom as his share. Tom will not touch what he calls blood money and turns it over to Mary Dennis (MacMahon), the owner of his roominghouse, to feed the jobless. Believing Tom to be a Communist, the police drive him out of town, and he becomes a homeless wanderer unable to find a job. On the road, he meets Roger, whose father’s bank failed because of mismanagement. Although the police drive them back on the road, the two veterans express hope that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal will improve the lot of the poor.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
I always find it clichéd to call a work of vintage fiction “relevant” because I believe all produced entertainment is a period piece — designed to speak specifically to the people of its time and its time only, with naturally no knowledge of what the future holds and how people of the future might someday respond. But there are some things that are timeless, particularly when it comes to the human experience. And one of the primary reasons I love the Pre-Code era is that its films, because of their honesty and freedom of speech, regularly tap into stuff to which we can still relate today, even though they’re built for and responding only to the particulars of that specific period — perhaps more than in most cinematic eras. In other words, Pre-Code films, at their best, offer two fascinating extremes: the most pointed looks at both their own, individual time periods (to which we can’t relate) and the type of universal truths (to which we can relate) that will likely keep them being watched for as long as Americans exist… I mention all this to say that Heroes For Sale, our first Pre-Code Essential of 2019, fits precisely into this mold. It’s undoubtedly a response to issues faced by audiences during the Post-War years and the Great Depression — and not to anything or anyone else — but said issues, and the way the characters respond to them, are still connectable to us in 2019.
Both of those elements are key to making a Pre-Code essential; I want a film to have something to say about humanity and about humanity in the Pre-Code era. To the latter point, Heroes For Sale is one of the most political pictures we’ve covered here — with far more serious concerns than the absurd Gabriel Over The White House (1933) or the trivial The Dark Horse (1932). This is a film that explores drug addiction among returning Great War veterans — personified by Barthelmess, and to a lesser extent, Westcott — and the government’s general mistreatment of them, an issue that unfortunately persists today and may therefore seem “relevant,” even though it was indeed a reaction to issues of the time, like the Bonus Army marches of WWI veterans on Washington. The text’s point of view is humane — and one that all of us, theoretically, would share — in support of the men who have sacrificed and are emotionally, physically, and now economically, destitute. Accordingly, the picture condemns the institutions that do wrong by these men. This kind of commentary, where American products critique America, is ubiquitous now — so common that, let’s face it, it’s no longer brave or daring to do so. But films under the Code would not allow such a pro-human sentiment to also come packaged to a rebuff of this country, and only in the Pre-Code era could these ideas be expressed. Thus, by design, Heroes For Sale is a terrific example of the Pre-Code era.
But it goes even further than that, for beyond its concerns about veterans, there’s a broader play towards the depressed folk of the Great You-Know-What — one that taps into their fears by not only making villains of people and institutions, but also by questioning the very principles that motivate them… and this entire country… Yes, Heroes, like Gabriel, is “skeptical” when it comes to capitalism, harshly judging the greedy bankers and businessmen who, through their profit-based, capitalistic decisions, ruin the lives of these characters — these people. It’s a sentiment that speaks directly to an audience in the height of economic turmoil that felt let down by “the system,” and again, while avoiding the “relevant” word, it’s something that still speaks to many today; the rise of interest in ideas like socialism and communism always occurs in this country following a downturn — when people inevitably believe that capitalism has failed them. That’s been true in the 21st century, and it was especially true in the 1930s. (Remember though that Gabriel‘s posited alternative was fascism.) Thus, Heroes For Sale is an able reflection of ’33, for it challenges the economic principles that seem destructive to humanity, and then indeed presents characters, like Max the German, who is vehemently anti-capitalist.
Yet here’s where that human-based nuance comes in, for although the film makes an almost too-easy link between capitalism and suffering, the common failings of those other -isms (socialism and communism) get dressed down too, when the character (Max) most loudly espousing those ideas is also revealed to be a hypocrite; when it comes right down to it, he’ll take the money and hurt people too. This counterargument, which paints the film as much more anthropological and honest than political and propagandistic, positions the film for its bleak, but hopeful ending, for while the script certainly wallows in tragedy — from war to addiction and depression to death — it refuses to give up on the notion of America, the hope that the chance for happiness is, pardon the expression, “just around the corner.” And the vessel that’s suggested as potentially bringing about this positive change is the newly elected president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It’s an interesting of-the-moment reference to the famous leader and his New Deal policies, and while I’m sure there are some who will term the ending convenient and non-conclusive, I think it fits a picture where the characters, not the message, come first.
Now, I’ve spent most of this essay discussing the ideas at play in the film, when actually the characters — the humanity — are the primary concern. And again, that’s the other half of the bargain as far as Pre-Code Essentialism is concerned, for it’s the depiction of these people that is timeless (if not “relevant”). And it all stems from nuance, for as with many Pre-Code greats, things aren’t always black-and-white (besides the film itself). Heroes themselves are not always heroes, as we see early on with Gordon Westcott’s character, who cowers in the line of duty and then takes credit for a stunning victory achieved by a man whom he believes to have died. He’s racked with guilt forever afterwards, and despite having a rich banker for a father, winds up economically on the rails with Richard Barthelmess, who was the “hero” that actually deserved the honor… Meanwhile, other forms of sacrifice are shown, like with Aline MacMahon, the wonderful scene-stealer who buries her feelings for Barthelmess when he falls for and marries Loretta Young, only to then step up to the plate and raise the couple’s child. She’s a hero whose life has effectively been ruined by economic hardship, just like everyone else’s, just like the audiences of 1933. You see, it’s this kind of emotional outreach that makes the film not just a snapshot of ’33, but one from which we can still derive meaning. It’s the perfect Pre-Code: it could only be made in its era, but it still reaches us today.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in Monday for our monthly Musical Theatre entry!