Movie Review: Heroes For Sale

Heroes For Sale1933. Starring Richard Barthelmess, Loretta Young. Directed by William Wellman.

It wasn’t my intention to watch a movie about an economic depression, labor troubles and soup lines. I was actually hoping to find some escape from those topics. But the TCM Archives “Forbidden Hollywood” DVD series has been on my Netflix list for quite a while and I thought it might be a welcome alternative to the almost-always-pessimistic nightly news. There weren’t any financial troubles in the 1930s, right?

Richard Barthelmess stars as Tom Holmes, a WWI grunt who takes a German machine-gun nest and captures an officer before being shot and left for dead by his commanding officer (Gordon Westcott). That officer takes credit for the capture, while Holmes recovers in a German POW hospital, becoming addicted to the morphine that silences the pain of metal in his spine. When the war ends, he meets up with his former commanding officer, a rich kid headed to a hero’s welcome. Instead of honors and medals, Holmes settles for a job with the rich kid’s family bank, but his need for morphine gets him fired by the appearance-conscious bank president.

Holmes is committed to a narcotics hospital (which kills his doting mother) and, upon his release, he hits the road to Chicago. It’s amazing how quickly things move along in films from this era — within the first half-hour, he’s experienced war, the home front, the bank job, commitment, a change of scenery, a new home, and a new love. Soon, he’s working for a laundry, where his resourcefulness and drive have him climbing the company ladder. All for nothing, warns his neighbor Brinker (Robert Barrat), an eccentric Communist inventor, who calls him a fool for trusting the evil capitalist system that will chew him up and spit him out. Brinker is the highlight of the film for me, a cartoonish Bolshevik who tinkers on machines in his apartment, and scolds his neighbors with a weird clucking that nearly wears out its novelty.

After marrying neighbor Ruth (Loretta Young), Holmes is enlisted by Brinker in patenting his latest invention, a laundry machine that speeds up productivity. Holmes sells it to the laundry under the agreement that no one will lose their job, but when a large corporation takes over, there is a massive layoff, and Holmes becomes the scapegoat for an unsympathetic mob. Holmes goes to prison for leading the riot that targeted him, while Brinker becomes an extremely wealthy man. (“You used to hate the capitalists!” yells Holmes. Brinker explains, “Naturally, but that was before I had money!”)

Richard Barthelmess wasn’t the first actor to play the tormented hero and not the last. (I cheered for him just as I did for Russell Crowe in Gladiator, that he’d not only crush the evil people but, more importantly, he get back the modest life he wanted and deserved in the first place.) He can certainly portray the everyman, however. Brinker is the more entertaining character, but Holmes the most believable. His scene at the bank, needing to buy morphine to think straight, but unwilling to steal what he needs, is heartbreaking. The fact that he is fired, committed and scorned makes it even worse.

The ending of the movie reunites Holmes with an old acquaintance among the soup lines and transient camps, at the mercy of more mobs and heartless authorities. And it makes the point, 75 years later, that playing by the rules and working hard doesn’t guarantee you won’t be homeless and jobless. Just like the depression that spawned this movie, it’s a lesson you wouldn’t think we’d have to endure again.

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