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.
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.
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.”
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.