Thursday, April 19, 2012

Review – Heroes for Sale

April 19, 2012

Heroes for Sale – U.S., 1933

Six years before John Steinbeck immortalized a young man named Tom Joad in his novel The Grapes of Wrath came another charismatic, selfless character named Tom. This one carried the last name Holmes, and he is the central character in Heroes for Sale, William A. Wellman’s moving tale of injustice set in a world soon to be gripped by paranoia. In the film, Tom Holmes (well-played by Richard Barthelmess) is a World War I veteran who comes back from the war not only with an addiction to Morphine but also without the medals and honors he so justly deserves. Those are mistakenly heaped upon his friend Roger Winston (Gordon Wescott), whose courage fails him early in the film at the most inopportune moment. The accolades matter little to Tom, however. In fact, he suspects that he would have done the same thing in his friends’ place. By the end of the film, however, this no longer seems plausible. What matters more to Tom is respect, respect for the men who went off the fight in the First World War, respect for workers’ rights in a time of great technological change, and ultimately respect for the men and women who have the misfortune of being unemployed during the Great Depression.

Anyone viewing the film today will be shocked at how much of what the film depicts can still be seen today. A nation may honor its returning heroes triumphantly at first, but as time goes by, such pride is often replaced by practicality. A man may indeed have medals, but the real question is: Can he improve his company’s bottom line? If the answer is no, a war hero like Tom may find himself in the same boat as everyone else – struggling to find a job in a harsh corporate world. For Tom, though, it’s even worse. Living at a time when drug addiction carried even more of a stigma than it presently does, Tom finds himself the object of distrust instead of sympathy. Needing money for the drug that provides a respite for the unending pain that his war injury causes him, he contemplates stealing $100 from his employer, only to have second thoughts about it and put the money back. His change of heart does not win him any sympathy, and he soon finds himself in a hospital for drug addicts. The film implies slightly that the shock and embarrassment of having a drug-addicted son is too much for Tom’s mother, and upon being declared cured, we see Tom standing over the graves of his parents, apologizing for the trauma he caused them. It’s a very moving scene.

From here, the film reverses course. We find Tom in Chicago trying to make a living. The film does not return to the issue of drug addiction, and Tom’s injury miraculously goes away. I’m not sure this is completely believable, but it allows the film to explore other contemporary issues. We watch Tom as he meets a woman named Ruth (Loretta Young) and falls head over heels in love with her. She helps him find a job at a laundry company. He is soon promoted after coming up with an ingenuous way to improve the company’s business and eventually has one of those charming sons we often see in films, the kind that say and do all the things that make an audience warm inside. In this part of the film, we also meet Tom’s eccentric communist neighbor, Max (Robert Barrat), who despises everything that capitalism stands for. That is, until his ingenuity provides him a path into the 1% that he so often railed against. Max is a fun character even if he is slightly overplayed at times, and he provides the audience with a clear picture of the kind of unsympathetic person that money can turn a person into.

With Heroes for Sale, Wellman turns his attention away from the decadence that is so often associated with pre-code Hollywood and shines a light on a country in both turmoil and transition. Middle class workers find themselves at risk of losing their jobs as a result of advances in technology and in danger of losing their freedom if they stand up and protest what is happening to them. In the film, protests and discontent are seen as indicators of Communist sympathies, and the authorities are harsh on those they deemed undesirable. To Tom, their message is crystal clear: leave town or return to jail.

One of the interesting aspects of films from this time period is the positive message they try to send about the future, a future that at that moment in time must have seemed bleak for many audience members. For many of them, the recession would go on for another six years. However, Hollywood depicted the fortunes of the unemployed as somewhat bright. Granted, it wasn’t going to get better immediately, but it would sooner than later. As Tom explains it, America will go on. The words of the new president are full of promise, delivering the message that a brighter future is inevitable, that America will not be defeated. He is right. And in a way, Tom Holmes is an example of the kind of person America needed in its darkest hour. As his long-time friend Mary (Aline MacMahon) says at the end of the film, he is a man who gives to others but never takes anything for himself. We can still use more people like him. (available in Region 1 on Disc 3 of Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 3)

4 stars

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