Heroes For Sale (1933)

Richard Barthelmess might be best known as a star of silent films, but I think he was equally good in early talkies, when his boyish looks were starting to fade. He was great as a tormented wartime aviator in Howard Hawks’  The Dawn Patrol (1930) – and he gives another powerful performance as a drug-addicted veteran of the First World War in William Wellman’s Heroes For Sale (1933). For me this is one of the strongest offerings in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three, though it possibly goes off the boil for a bit in the middle.

This film, one of a number which Wellman made focusing on the Great Depression, follows Barthelmess’ character, Tom Holmes, from the trenches of France through to a peacetime battle in America, a march by the “forgotten men”, war veterans desperately seeking work. Both the opening in the trenches and the march of the unemployed men near the end are set amid torrential rain, which features in so many early Wellman films and seems to express the overwhelming forces bearing down on his heroes.  The original working title of the film was Breadline, but it was changed to the more dramatic and bitter Heroes For Sale, underlining the theme of war veterans who can’t make a living in peacetime. However, the film isn’t just sympathetic to old soldiers, who are not particularly romanticised, but to everyone struggling in the Depression, and the hard years leading up to it.

There are similarities with both Les Miserables and I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang, as, in this film scripted by Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner,  Barthelmess plays a man who is hounded from one place to another and can’t escape his past.  James Van Trees’ cinematography is excellent throughout, especially striking in the dark, shadowy rainy sequences at the beginning and  (almost) the end of the film.

The opening follows a confusing, desperate operation in the war, where Private Holmes and another soldier from his hometown, Lieutenant Roger Winston (Gordon Westcott), are ordered to capture German soldiers as prisoners in a raid. However, there have been signs that Roger’s nerve is cracking, and under fire he huddles in a foxhole, leaving it to Tom to carry out a heroic raid on his own, capturing a prisoner – but being badly injured in the process. Assuming that Tom is dead, Roger takes the credit for his actions, allowing himself to be hailed as a hero and promoted.

Meanwhile, Tom is taken prisoner, and treated by the German military doctors for his injuries – becoming hooked on morphine which he is given for pain relief. It would be interesting to know how often this happened in real life – I’ve read that Humphrey Bogart’s father was addicted to morphine initially given for pain relief, and there was also a silent film star, Wallace Reid, who died of morphine addiction after his studio gave him the drug so he could carry on working with a back injury.

Barthelmess behind bars at the bank

Drug addiction is one of the subjects that became taboo under the Hays Code, but this pre-Code film tackles the issue quite frankly. Tom travels home with other wounded veterans – watch out for silent film star James Murray, who starred in Wellman’s Frisco Jenny and here has a small but telling part as a blind soldier.  On arrival in the US, Tom meets up with Roger, the man who took his honours. He doesn’t bear a grudge and accepts a job in the bank run by Roger’s dad. However,  even when Tom’s injuries heal, he can’t break free of his addiction and his work suffers. There is a harrowing scene where a doctor refuses to prescribe him morphine, and, when Tom warns that he might be driven to steal as a  result, the doctor’s answer is to ring up his employer and reveal his problems. Roger’s father (Berton Churchill) self-righteously sacks Tom, expressing pious horror at his drug addiction – and he is carted off to a “drugs farm”.

After finishing his rehab, Tom doesn’t want to go home again, and heads off to Chicago, where he takes a room above a cheap restaurant-cum-soup kitchen run by the kindly Mary Dennis (Aline MacMahon) and her Pa (Charley Grapewin). He falls in love with fellow-lodger Ruth Loring (Loretta Young), and goes to work at the commercial laundry where she is employed. Soon Tom is catching the boss’s eye and being promoted – then he marries Ruth and they move into a house and have a baby.

Young has much less scope in this movie than in Wellman’s Midnight Mary, and is largely a presence in the background, although she does the most she can with the lines she has. This whole central section runs rather slowly (even in a movie which is just 76 minutes long) and is not really up to the standard of the rest of the drama. The kindly laundry boss and happy workers pictured with gleaming white sheets at times seem more like a dream than reality (though I see from a very detailed TCM article that real laundry workers, and real homeless people, were used as extras in this film.) There is also an awful lot of heavy-handed humour involving eccentric German inventor Max Brinker (Robert Barrat), who has one or two annoying verbal tics which I don’t find quite as hilarious as Wellman seemed to.

If you haven’t seen the film you may want to stop reading here, as I’m going to discuss the whole plot in this next bit.

Brinker is a fervent Communist (he quotes whole lines of Marx) who suddenly becomes an even more fervent capitalist after making his fortune by patenting a new type of washing machine. At first the workers are enthusiastic about the machines, believing they will improve their working conditions, but this all changes when the kindly boss dies – and a new management takes over,  laying off most of the staff to save money.  The pace of the film picks up again as a desperate group of workers stage a Luddite-style riot, vowing to smash the machines. Tom, trying to remonstrate with his colleagues, is picked out as a ring-leader and  taken off by police – while Ruth, trying to find Tom, is knocked down by a  cop and killed. There is a haunting shot of Loretta Young lying dead in the street.

Tom (Richard Barthelmess) being driven out of town as a “Red”

After this, Tom is allowed home briefly to bury his wife and say goodbye to his toddler son, who is entrusted to Mary,  before he has to go to jail to do five years of hard labour. What I found disturbing here is the astonishing quality of acting by the child (unnamed in the credits as far as I could see), who looks about two years old. This small child strokes Barthelmess’ face as he weeps silently (Howard Hawks claimed in an interview that Barthelmess couldn’t cry on film, but he does so here)  and also has a number of lines,  which he delivers very convincingly, asking about where his mother has gone and who will look after him now, and wailing to his father not to leave him. I’ve noticed quite a few small children giving good performances in early talkies, but this must be one of the youngest children I’ve seen speaking actual lines. A five-year-old, Ronnie Cosby, is listed at the imdb as playing “Young Bill Holmes”, but I’m guessing he is more likely to be the slightly older child taking over the part after  Tom comes home from prison, who has rather more lines and scenes.

Almost as soon as Tom comes home, two FBI agents call round to run him out of town as a “Red”. Some of the most powerful scenes in the whole film ensue, as he is seen wearily marching with other men through apparently endless rain and darkness, driven on  by police whenever they stop for rest or shelter. “We are ex-servicemen!” shouts Tom in one scene. “Well, maybe you are and maybe you aren’t,” comes the reply, “but you can’t stop here.” Ironically, he meets up with Roger, the man who stole his honours all those years ago, and who has served time in jail himself for fraud when his bank collapsed. The two men now find a sort of uneasy comradeship again, just as they did in battle.  Amid all the rain and darkness, there is one jarringly positive scene where Tom suddenly starts to praise a speech by Roosevelt and predict that America will fight back from the Depression and be strong again.  John Gallagher’s commentary on the DVD says that Darryl Zanuck told Wellman he must include a scene like this, and he actually shot two versions, with Tom reading the speech in a newspaper in the take which wasn’t used. I can see why it was thought a good idea to include something more hopeful amid all these dark scenes which were so close to the real lives of many people watching the film – but it doesn’t seem in keeping with the rest of the movie at this point. I prefer another  more understated hopeful moment when Tom smiles wryly and says “Well, there’s some good news – it’s stopped raining.”

The unemployed men marching from one town to another

That is  actually his last line in the film, but it is followed by a scene showing young Bill and mother figure Mary at the soup kitchen, dishing up food paid for by Tom’s money – all his share of the takings from the washing machines, which he relinquished. There is a sign on the wall quoting the text “Give us this day our daily bread” and giving not only the Biblical reference, but also Tom Holmes’ name – pointing out that he is the one providing the bread, and making it almost explicit that he is to be seen as a secular Christ figure, suffering on behalf of others. This ending shows that people are carrying on and supporting one another – though there is no certainty about whether Tom will ever go home again.

14 thoughts on “Heroes For Sale (1933)

  1. Judy, Warner Bros. was a big FDR booster early on — I recall Busby Berkeley using his dancers to form a giant Roosevelt head in Footlight Parade, I think — but the boosterism is undercut by the stark fact that our hero has not yet turned the corner. Viewers might assume an upturn is inevitable because Tom’s had such a rollercoaster career, and while Heroes is another Wellman period piece proving that people had it tough before the Depression, it also seems designed to demonstrate that most people’s opinions depend on their material standing in life, e.g. Max’s triumphant disdain for workers and Roger’s ultimate despair. The middle section is probably meant to show that Tom’s exceptionally consistent and worthy of our sympathy throughout his ups and downs. Forbidden Hollywood 3 is a great collection and you make a great case for Heroes.


    • Thank you very much for this, Samuel – I remember that Roosevelt head in ‘Footlight Parade’. This film does feel pretty disillusioned most of the time, so I was quite surprised by this upbeat bit of dialogue, though I must agree with you it is undercut anyway by the fact that there is no light showing on the horizon yet for Tom. I like your point about people’s opinions depending on their material standing – I suppose the difference with Tom is that his opinions don’t change all that much and he is never all that impressed by money, whether he has it or not, making him exceptionally consistent, as you say. I do agree this is a great collection, and I think on the whole they made a good choice of which Wellman films to include – I’ve just watched another of those they left out, ‘Lilly Turner’, and I’d say it is quite interesting but nowhere near the level of those in the set.


  2. I very much love this film. Wellman must of had a heart for the common man. In looking at your photo with with unemployed and the sign saying “Jobless Men Keep Going”, it reminded me of another Wellman film, “Wild Boys of the Road” where they are chased out of town by the “good citizens.” Always powerful stuff!


    • I think those signs must be one of the most shocking sights in the film – reminds me of the ancient “poor laws” where poor people weren’t allowed to settle in another parish. I hope to write about ‘Wild Boys’ soon – agree it is powerful stuff. Thanks, John.


  3. Judy, this is another excellent review, and I appreciate how you give a “spoilers heads up” for those who haven’t seen these particular films.

    I have seen HEROES FOR SALE and ended up having mixed views about it. On the one hand, as you already pointed out, the lighting and acting are both very well done. And the shot of a dead Loretta Young was truly haunting.

    On the other hand, I, too, became weary of Robert Barrat’s silly tics. And while I appreciated the message of the movie, I also thought it went over the top in manipulating the audience. The mounting tragedies and incidents of hard luck got to be too much, IMO.

    That said, it’s definitely worth watching. And even though I thought the movie was trying too hard to manipulate its audience, I’m glad it’s been restored and is commercially available. It’s an important part of Wellman’s output.


    • Thanks for the encouragement, CagneyFan. I definitely agree on that shot of Loretta Young being haunting and staying with me. I do sometimes get that feeling in some of these melodramas about things being piled on too much, but didn’t really in this one – I think because Barthelmess’ character is a something of an Everyman figure it seems allowable for everything to happen to him. Although I have to admit it may partly just be that I like him a lot as an actor and so will accept more than I would with someone I don’t warm to so much. On Barrat, after being irritated by him in this one I watched ‘Lilly Turner’, a lesser-known Wellman film where he plays a mentally ill strongman – in that movie, where again he has a German accent, I think he’s magnificent and pretty well steals the film, so maybe this just wasn’t the right part for him. ‘Lilly’ is not nearly such a good film as ‘Heroes’, but Barrat is really something in it.


  4. Judy, thanks for the heads up on LILLY TURNER. Funny you mentioned it. It’s high on my “to see” list; I just may watch it today or tomorrow.

    ITA with you on Barthelmess. He was an excellent actor and, sadly, almost forgotten, as are many of the greats from his era.


    • Hope you enjoy ‘Lilly Turner’ – I’m going to write something about it but probably not at as much length as I’ve done for ‘Heroes’! Quite a few of Barthelmess’ films seem to have come out on Warner Archive, so I suppose that may spread the word about him to a few more film buffs. I agree with you it’s sad that so many actors of that era have been largely forgotten.


  5. “If you haven’t seen the film you may want to stop reading here, as I’m going to discuss the whole plot in this next bit.”

    Alas, Judy, this warning was all the motivation I needed to take out my Forbidden Hollywood Set, Volume 3, as for some reason I didn’t remember seeing the film, but thought I had. You are absolutely right when you assert that for the most part (yes the middle of the film lagged a bit in transition, although in another sense the material here is plentiful enough for two films) this is an early 30’s Wellman gem, and all in all one of his finest films. Richard Barthelmess is one of those magnetic actors that gave Wellmann some great performances, and just recently I boasted to someone about his performance in William Dieterle’s masterful THE LAST FLIGHT, recently at long last released by Warner Archives. Again the Great Depression hovers over a Wellman film, and I was fascinated to read of what you said here about studio interference and some social propaganda. But there are some deep humanist underpinnings in this film, and your description of that poignant performance by the young child and Barthelmess’s onscreen tears are proof parcel. Then there’s the affecting performance here by Aline MacMahon as Alice Dennis, in which she nearly steals the film from Barthelmess and Young. But the film is blessed with a fine cast all around, even our friend James Murray as the blind soldier, whose performance in Vidor’s THE CROWD, is of course the stuff legends are made of. I had read that the film was orginally known as BREADLINE, but fully understand the thematic reasons for the change. And yes, this is a bold account of drug addition for the pre-code era, adding to the films authenticity.

    Perhaps my favorite paragraph is yet another superlative Wellman entry in this priceless series of essays is this, and my reasons are two-fold:

    “There are similarities with both Les Miserables and I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang, as, in this film scripted by Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner, Barthelmess plays a man who is hounded from one place to another and can’t escape his past. James Van Trees’ cinematography is excellent throughout, especially striking in the dark, shadowy rainy sequences at the beginning and (almost) the end of the film.”

    You make an outstanding comparison with CHAIN GANG and MISERABLES as Barthelmess does recall both James Allen and Jean Valjean who are obsessively hounded as a result of society’s grave injustices against them, and there is no way to put the past behind them. And then there is the beautiful cinematography of James Van Trees here (who also of course lensed THE STAR WITNESS and MIDNIGHT MARY for Wellman), and you again pinpoint the most compelling artistic aspects here. Safe to say Van Trees’ work is glowingly preserved on the impressive print on display in this set.

    The Wellman series is one of the internet’s most notable achievements Judy, and I say kudos to you!


    • Dear Sam, wow, thank you so much for this amazingly detailed and generous comment, almost a blog posting in itself! Sorry to be slow in replying but my computer was somewhat seizing up yesterday and I couldn’t be on it much as I had a late-night shift at work.

      I’m very pleased you were tempted to watch this too, and that you appreciated Barthelmess’ fine performance in this. Masterful is the right word for him – ‘The Last Flight’ is a film I’d heard a lot about but didn’t think I’d get an opportunity to see, so I was delighted Warner finally released it and am so glad to have it. I hope to write about it very soon. I also intend to watch more of his silent films – ‘Tol’able David’ is magnificent.

      I especially like your comment about the deep humanist underpinnings of ‘Heroes’ and agree – this seems to be something that runs all through Wellman’s movies from the 20s and early 30s, as he continually focuses on the poor and dispossessed of society, from ‘Beggars of Life’ onwards. I would like to find a book which looks at his body of work properly rather than just collecting funny anecdotes about ‘Wild Bill’. Maybe someone will write such a book, as it seems as if interest in him is growing with the release of this set. Again, many thanks, Sam.


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  7. I don’t know what the latest figures for unemployment in the US are but they are high — and we have no films like this Wellman. The face of unemployment seems to have changed and there is so little solidarity because people move around so much and live more isolated lives — Bowling Alone is the book to read.

    I enjoyed reading the description of the movie, and it made me remember how Loretta Young’s large eyes were so important to her acting. She was memorable looking. The child or young adolescent actors of The turn of the Screw (Welch’s film) were essential to its effect – not as young as 2 of course.



  8. Thank you, Ellen – I wonder if there will be more films addressing the current problems. I agree the face of unemploymen seems to have changed a lot since the 1930s, in Europe too. Thanks also for citing the book ‘Bowling Alone’. I do agree about Loretta Young – I’ve seen her in a number of her early films now and her eyes do a lot to put across her emotions.


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