Thursday, November 11, 2010

Heroes for Sale - 1933

We mark Veterans Day today with the film “Heroes for Sale” (1933), which was produced in that era when Veterans Day was Armistice Day and the prevailing view of Armistice Day and World War I was pacifist. By the end of the decade, war returned and pacifist sentiments would be something akin to treason.

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.

Richard Barthelmess and Gordon Westcott are part of the platoon that is engaged in a raid on the enemy. We are with them in the mud soaked trenches. We crawl along the barbed wire of No Man's Land in the night, in the pouring rain with cannon fire all around us. Mr. Westcott perhaps reflects our sentiments more purely when he has a panic attack and refuses to continue. He hides in the trench, while Mr. Barthelmess moves forward and captures the enemy. He brings the German officer back to the trench, a valuable prisoner to be interrogated. But just after he gets the German officer to safety, Barthelmess is shot and collapses.

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.

There are several times when someone could spill the beans and Westcott’s dirty secret will be out, which lends a great deal of dramatic tension as we wait for his inevitable humiliation. It also reminds us throughout the film that the War, and its various consequences, is never over for these vets.

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.

In a cameo role on this troopship we see 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.

He is struggling at work, he needs a fix, and he sneaks out of the alley to see the drug pusher. But the pusher has raised his prices, and Barthelmess can't afford it. We think for a moment that he might steal from the bank, but he doesn't. He goes to a doctor and the doctor reports him to the public authorities. His boss is unsympathetic. When Westcott tries lamely to defend Barthelmess the boss says, “You fellows forget the war is over. It's time to quit beating the drum and waving the flag.” The boss wants to fire him for his “loathesome cowardly habit”.

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.

In Chicago, Aline MacMahon, who we last saw as a chorus girl in this post on “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.

He is one of the gang here, and he always rants about the doctrines of servitude in a capitalistic society. But nobody dislikes him for his political leanings; they take him with a grain of salt. He is an equal here, even if he is a “Red”. They see him only as an obnoxious loudmouth. He could be just a minor character in this movie, but he actually ends up having a pivotal role. Cleverly though, his presence is meant more for comic relief rather than to nail the audience on the head with a social message.

Loretta works in a laundry, and Barthelmess gets a job there. He starts at the bottom and works his way to the top. Grant Mitchell is his boss.

Life is good for a while for our Mr. Barthlemess, coming home to the rooming house where the gang, who have become like a family, await him. Especially Aline MacMahon, whom pa Charley Grapewin teases for looking like she’s primping for Barthlemess.

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.

She goes off to get her hat and coat, but she sees Barthelmess and Loretta hugging, and she closes her bedroom door in a private moment of agony, being tactful and noble and crushed all the same time. Three is a crowd. She tells them to go on without her, and we see that not only has she lost what she thinks might have been a romantic relationship with Barthelmess, she has lost their companionship as well. Miss MacMahon is very good, very subtle in this scene. She is clearly one of those actresses who can do a whole lot with very little.  The director lets the camera linger on her while she works through her emotions.

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.

Good old dependable Aline MacMahon takes his son and raises him and tells him his father is in Alaska. There is a sweet goodbye scene when the little boy, sitting on his lap playfully pokes Barthelmess's tear-streaked face. When Barthelmess is taken away by the police and the child comes fretful, Aline tells the little boy soldiers don't cry.

They don't get much of a break, either. After five years, Barthlemess is released, but in the meantime, the Communist has sold many of his machines to many laundries and has gotten filthy stinking rich. He doesn't care if people are being thrown out of work because of his invention. He's made an amazing and humorous change. He turns from Communist to capitalist.

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.

The Communist is now wearing a millionaire’s tuxedo and derby, and attending University Club suppers. All this time Aline has been taking care of the boy. And now it is the Depression, and she and Charley Grapewin run a soup kitchen. When they run out of soup, and they must close the door to the next people in line, men and women, old folks stare desperately through the window.

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.

Westcott glances around, the rain dripping off his battered fedora, and mumbles, “This country can't go on this way. It's the end of America.” How many times have we heard that?

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.


Raquelle said...

I totally forgot about this movie! Richard Barthelmess had a very special talent for ripping my heart out. He can make me sympathize with any of his characters because he there is just something so empathetic about him. I remember being really angry throughout this movie because of the various injustices! It's definitely one to watch again. Thanks for this.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Raquelle, thanks for stopping by. I like Richard Barthelmess, too. I agree, a very emphathetic Everyman. Also (and this is an odd thought, I know) probably one of the few short actors who was not relegated to comic roles or sidekick roles merely because of his height. He retains his dignitiy in any situation, no matter what actor or actress towers over him.

Judy said...

Great review - I especially like your comments on the changing relationship between Barthelmess and Westcott's characters, and also agree on your comparison with 'They Made Me a Fugitive'. I wrote about this film at my blog a few months ago, as I'm (very slowly!) working my way through William Wellman's films - I think this one has a powerful performance by Barthelmess and some devastating scenes, like the early one where he is in the bank and looking hopelessly out through the bars, which you have picked out in a still. I've read that the studio told Wellman to put in the upbeat references to FDR, as with the changed ending he was forced to use for another of his Depression movies, 'Wild Boys of the Road' - but here the ending doesn't really feel all that upbeat, as, whatever his words, Barthelmess is last seen still eking out a bleak existence. I found Robert Barrat a bit annoying in this movie, but he is great as a mentally ill strongman in another Wellman pre-Code, Lilly Turner, where, again, he does a German accent. Anyway, thank you for posting this great piece.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you Judy, for a great deal of insight and information. I urge everyone to go check out Judy's blog,"Movie Classics" here:

This film, as you know, has all the earmarks of Wellman and of the early 1930s Warner Bros. movies with their gritty depictions of the human condition. What amazed me is tough guy Wellman's gentle handling of the Aline MacMahon character. She has a larger role than Loretta Young, and she plays her part with intelligence and sensitivity.

The Westcott character interested me very much as well. I would have liked to have seen more of him in the film.

Good luck plowing through Wellman's films. I'll look forward to reading your posts.

Judy said...

Thanks very much, Jacqueline. I suspect I slightly overlooked both the Westcott and MacMahon characters in focusing on Barthelmess and Young - but I agree they are both very interesting. Despite his tough guy image, I've found that Wellman is surprisingly sympathetic to women characters in many of his 1930s films. I'm enjoying reading your blog a lot and look forward to following your future posts, too.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks so much for kind words, Judy.

Related Products