Thursday, November 11, 2010
Heroes for Sale - 1933
Gone finally, or overwritten at least, was that era, not innocent, but world weary, when the loss and the futility of war was still felt so keenly. Richard Barthelmess shows the many sides of being a veteran. This is not so much a welcome home story as it is a what do you do now story. We begin in the trenches, and we end on a long lonely road to nowhere.
Westcott brings the German officer back to headquarters and is proclaimed a hero. This is a film that could have been divided into two or three different movies, because there's a lot happening that is very interesting in terms of the illustrating great demons we carry around. Mr. Westcott is a perfect case study. He is a poster boy for that old line from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, “cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.” Westcott’s fear at being found out dogs him this entire movie.
The first time we think he might be exposed is when the German officer is being interrogated in German by an American officer, and the German glances at Westcott with a wry, mocking smile, as if he knows that this coward, who did not capture him, is getting the credit for being a hero. We wonder if the German will tell. Westcott suffers agonies wondering.
Meanwhile the valiant that taste of death but once, Barthelmess, we discover is not dead. Westcott thought he was and we thought he was, but he was captured by Germans and he was brought to a hospital behind enemy lines.
Here we see another aspect in a war movie that we would not see again for many, many years, and that is a humanistic, if not exactly empathetic view of the enemy. We see the Germans have their hospital and they treat the enemy as they would their own soldiers. They are not the monsters we seen the World War I posters. They are overburdened and overworked and desperately trying to save lives.
After the Armistice there is a prisoner exchange, and the German officer in charge of the hospital tells Barthelmess that he may go home. He gives him morphine to take because Barthelmess still has slivers of schrapnel in his spine which causes him great pain. Barthelmess is thankful, respectful, and they part like gentlemen.
We see what is probably a newsreel shot of a troopship coming home. Here, Westcott meets up with Richard Barthelmess again unexpectedly. The sick expression comes over Westcott’s face and he knows that he will have to come clean with this secret he carries, if not with the world, at least with Mr. Barthelmess. He confesses what he did, but Barthelmess has a nonchalant attitude towards it and lets him off the hook. He doesn't care. He says, “I've been in the shadow of death so long. Nothing seems very important anymore.”
It is an admirable sentiment and probably common to most soldiers after seeing absolute hell. They've seen the worst in they are not looking for the best anymore, just a little peace.
James Murray, who we last saw in this post on “The Crowd” (1928). We mentioned the unfortunate circumstances of both his career and his life that took place a few years after this film was made. Since “The Crowd” was a silent movie, this film is the first time I've heard him speak. I was surprised to hear he sounds something like George Brent.
Westcott the hero goes home to a hero's welcome and Barthelmess goes home with a dependence on morphine. Westcott is a rich boy; his father owns the bank. Barthelmess works as a teller, and we see him behind the bars of his teller's cage looking for all like he is in jail.
We see how these words sting his son, who is the real coward. Barthelmess finally does hysterically spill the beans when he is cornered, about the son’s cowardice, defending his drug habit by saying he got wounded while his son did nothing.
For a moment we think Westcott is finally exposed, but his father won’t believe the accusation. Westcott won’t admit to it, either. He dismisses Barthelmess’s words as the “ravings of a dope fiend.”
Barthelmess is sent to the state narcotics farm for several months. When he is released, we see by his file card that his morphine habit is cured, and we see from Barthelmess’ stroll around the cemetery that his mother has died in the meantime.
Now he heads to Chicago for a new start, and now we have what could be a completely different movie. Some aspects of this film are very similar to Paul Muni's experiences in “I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” (1932). One could make a lot of comparisons.
“Gold Diggers of 1933”, and her father, Charley Grapewin, run a small hole-in-the-wall diner and a rent rooms upstairs. Aline is her usual sharp but nice girl with snappy dialogue and a heart of gold. A plain Jane in whom no one is interested romantically, but probably should be. When Barthelmess comes in asking for a room, she brings him upstairs and tests the mattress out for him by vigorously bouncing on it, while Barthlemess watches incrediously in one of those naughty/innocent moments.
Loretta Young, with her large pale eyes and enormous smile also rooms here, Barthelmess, no surprise, is smitten by her. Another roomer is a German Communist, played by Robert Barrat who was probably one of the funnier people in this movie.
She says no, “just trying not to look like the family”. A great line, and a great delivery.
In a bittersweet scene, Loretta and Barthelmess are preparing to go out on the town and they ask Aline to come with them. She is excited about going out, leaving the drudgery of running the place and looking after pa for a few hours to be with people her own age.
Loretta and Barthelmess marry and they have a little boy. Barthelmess is a success in business. Communist Mr. Barrat, who is an engineer, invents a machine to use in the laundry business. It will increase production. He comes to Barthelmess for help to promote and to get investors. Both see this wonderful machine as a benefit for employees. They will have more leisure time, and their work will be easier. They sell this machine to Grant Mitchell, and he agrees that no one will be fired, no salaries will be cut. A little Depression-era message.
But the illusion of utopia is shattered when a new owner takes over and does what new owners do: fires employees because who needs them with this great new machine?
We get a shot of the factory. There are few people at work, and those that are working at menial jobs, which do not require their intelligence or their creativity. They push buttons.
A riot of unemployed workers breaks out. I've read where director William Wellman hired real hobos for the fight scene, which one can believe because it is very realistic. There is one shot of Loretta Young, trying to struggle her way through the crowd looks as if she's in real danger. Barthelmess tries to stop the riot. Loretta gets beaten and trampled to death in a shocking scene of implied violence hidden by some quick cuts. Several others are killed, and Barthelmess is sent to jail for five years for being an agitator.
Conversely, Barthelmess's conscience is weighed down by the idea of people being thrown out of work. But the Communist has proven a valuable and trusty steward, because he saved Barthelmess’ royalties for him in a bank account, and now Barthelmess has a nice nest egg for the rest of his life.
They do a nice job aging Barthelmess. He looks haggard, not so baby faced when he was a young soldier out of the trenches. It's not too much or overdone, but you can see the lines in his face, the dark circles under his eyes.
Barrat calls them lazy moochers. Barthelmess gives Aline his bankbook and tells her to run her soup kitchen with his money. But the Communists has no use for charity. He says it is like a snowball that keeps growing and growing. If you feed them once they will always return. He says, “If I was running the world I would kill anybody that needed anything.”
This character has made the most amazing transformation in the history of the movies since Scrooge became a good guy. Communist, to capitalist, to fascist. A little more movie message here, but couched in clownishness.
Barthelmess, an ex-convict now smeared as a Red for having been involved in the labor riot, becomes the target of vigilante squads, self-important bullies with too much time on their hands, who run him out of town and grab a few Italians, too, because most likely they are Reds. Proof is not essential when you hate.
Barthelmess leaves Chicago, and like many other hobos in the Great Depression, rides the rails from one hobo jungle to another. In one he meets up again with Gordon Westcott. The “hero” is just out of jail for bank fraud, and his father who had been stealing from the bank for years, has shot himself to avoid prosecution. Westcott explains his father's thievery “is just one of those things. When you start, you can't stop.” It is ironic, and we think of Barthelmess’ drug habit long ago.
Ward Bond has a small cameo as one of the hobos in the jungle. It is rainy and muddy, just like when they were in the trenches years ago. The end of the movie is like where they began. Westcott still carries on his shoulders the guilt of his cowardice. But Barthelmess no longer cares, and if Westcott ever gains any absolution it is in the way his long ago human act of fear no longer matters in a world where even the World War no longer matters.
But Barthelmess, though not exactly an optimist, has a more fatalistic and practical approach. He brings up FDR's inaugural address (President Roosevelt was just beginning his first term when this film was released), and thinks things will iron themselves out in the end. He thinks America will come back stronger than ever.
And when the police raid their hobo jungle and move them on farther down the road, Barthelmess looks up and notes happily that it has stopped raining. He has a soldier’s fatalism, the kind you get when you've seen the worst. And you don't expect the best anymore, just a little comfort will do.
As the movie ends, we look into the eyes of his son. A boy who idolizes his father, a distant figure who supports the soup kitchen where Aline is raising him. We look into the eyes of the future. He says he wants to be just like his dad.
We know he probably won't be, because the circumstances of his life will be different. The circumstances in which we live have a way of making all of us who we are, for better or for worse, some of us rise above it and some of us do not.
He will be old enough to fight in World War II, but they don’t know that yet, because this movie was made in 1933, and we all knew that there wouldn’t be any more wars after the War to End All Wars.