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HEROES FOR SALE(director: William A. Wellman; screenwriters: story by Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner; cinematographer: James Van Trees; editor: Howard Bretherton; music: Leo F. Forbstein; cast: Richard Barthelmess (Thomas Holmes), Aline MacMahon (Mary Dennis), Loretta Young (Ruth Loring Holmes), Gordon Westcott (Roger Winston), Robert Barrat (Max Brinker), Grant Mitchell (George Gibson), Charles Grapewin (Pa Dennis), Berton Churchill (Mr. Winston); Runtime: 73; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Hal B. Wallis; Warner Home Video; 1933)
“A satisfactory but vexing populist social conscience film from the Depression-era.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A satisfactory but vexing populist social conscience film from the Depression-era, directed with force and conviction in a muscular style by William A. Wellman (“Wings”/”Night Nurse”/”The Public Enemy”). It’s based on the story by Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner that exposes such varied things as false hero worship, morphine addiction, poverty, hunger, humiliation, betrayal, police brutality, false arrests, unemployment, the danger of machines replacing workers and the phoniness of Communism. There’s a little of almost everything thrown into the stew that depicts what America was going through when the stock market crashed and the Depression began.

During WW I trench warfare Lieutenant Roger Winston (Gordon Westcott) and private Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess), soldiers from the same American hometown, are assigned to capture German prisoners in a raid. Roger becomes paralyzed with fear and cowers in the foxhole while Tom heroically captures a German officer and blows up a German foxhole. But he gets severely injured when hit by a shell and is taken prisoners by the Germans, while the cowardly Roger returns with the prisoner and is honored with the highest medals and promoted to a major –never giving Tom any credit. After the war Tom returns home with a morphine addiction, as he was compassionately treated with morphine in the German hospital to alleviate his pain. At home Tom works as a bank teller in the bank Roger’s smug father (Berton Churchill) runs and Roger is second in command. When Tom’s work is judged sloppy, it’s soon revealed he’s a morphine addict and fired. When the father is told by Tom how he became an addict and that the medals belonged to him and not Roger, the father believes his son when he calls Tom a raving lunatic. Tom’s sent to be cured at a prison state farm and when released moves to Chicago, since his poor mom died of shame. There his luck temporarily changes, as he falls in love with fellow boarder Ruth (Loretta Young), a real looker, and joins her working in a laundry. The lovers marry and have a son, and the kindhearted laundry boss, Mr. Gibson (Grant Mitchell), leases from the go-getter Tom a new laundry washing machine that’s a real time saver. It was invented by the Communist spouting Max (Robert Barrat), the couple’s fellow boarder in the roominghouse owned by the saintly Pop Dennis (Charles Grapewin) and his daughter Mary Dennis (Aline MacMahon). Tom backs the invention with his money and things are hunky-dory until Gibson dies and the new owner lays off most of the workers. The angry unemployed workers riot, and Tom foolishly tries to stop them as they are breaking the machines. Tom’s wife even more foolishly tries to rescue him from the riot as it turns increasingly violent, and is clubbed to death. Tom is sentenced to a five year prison term as the Red ringleader. The child is raised by Mary. When released, Max is a wealthy man and now rejects Communism to promote capitalism, and turns over to his partner Tom a bankbook with $50,000. But the noble Tom calls it blood money and keeps none of it for himself (like why help his kid out!) and donates it all to Mary to run a soup kitchen for the hungry. If that weren’t enough melodramatics, the Red Scare police kick Tom out of the Windy City because they say he’s nothing but a low-down Commie. The kid remains with Mary in the roominghouse and Tom becomes a hobo, riding the rails across the country. Wouldn’t you just know it, he meets there Roger who hit bottom after the crash. The film ends with the hope that this country cannot fail because the new president, FDR, in his inaugural address has come up with a strategy to address the country’s staggering economical problems with his New Deal stimulus package. Meanwhile, Tom, the Everyman hero, has embraced his life on the road as a necessary self-sacrifice to his journey.

It was an energetic and enjoyable film, but the overwrought melodramatics were a bit much and the character played by Barthelmess (a character only Hollywood could dream up) should either be locked up in a loony bin or canonized for sainthood.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”