I have a thing for pre-code movies. I find them incredibly interesting nuggets of life put to film, showing just what life was to the people living it. Don’t get me wrong, I love the wittiness and subtlety that came along with the Hayes Production Code (a necessity in order to get the point across without alerting the censors) but there is something about pre-code movies that is compelling and just makes me want to dive in and watch! It also doesn’t hurt that they are usually around an hour in length, which when you are trying to squeeze in some viewing time while your baby is napping (And I am!), is perfect. And boy howdy do they pack a lot in to an hour!
About a month ago Turner Classic Movies (TCM) ran a spotlight on pre-code movies. Every Friday for a month was filled with 24 hours of pre-code movies, which needless to say also filled my DVR. As is the plight of most classic film fans with DVRs, you end up recording more movies than you can reasonably get to in a short amount of time. Here I am, a bit after the fact, finally making my way through and it is from my DVR that I found my next film. From 1933 and directed by William Wellman, it is HEROES FOR SALE and it is not only available on the first FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD collection from Turner Classic Movies but you can also watch it in high definition on Warner Archive Instant right now!
We start in the trenches of World War I. An American soldier is receiving orders from his commanding officer for a secret mission. Roger, played by Gordon Wescott, is told that he must take a group of men out of the trenches and into enemy territory with the purpose of capturing a German soldier. It is basically a suicide mission and Roger knows it. When the time comes to venture out Roger is paired with another soldier named Tom, played by Richard Barthelmess. Roger and Tom make it across the battlefield to the German trenches while the rest of the group perishes. At the critical moment Roger refuses to go any further, giving in to his fear and panic. Tom goes ahead alone and captures a German soldier but, when he returns to Roger with his captive, he is hit in the back by an exploding shell. He urges Roger to take the prisoner back to camp as he is done for. Roger hesitates but does so when it appears that Tom is dead. Back in the American camp, Roger is hailed as a hero for his bravery and cunning. Out on the battlefield German soldiers come across Tom, who is not as dead as everyone thought he was. Tom is taken back to the German camp and operated on.
Armistice Day comes and Tom is returned to America via an exchange of prisoners. Before he leaves, the German doctor who has been caring for him gives Tom a box of morphine pills. Tom, it seems, is in terrible and constant pain from the injuries to his back and the doctor tells him to take a pill whenever he feels that he can longer stand the pain. On the ship back to America Tom runs in to Roger, who has been promoted and given many medals for his heroism. Roger tells Tom that he never meant for it to happen this way but it is too far gone now. He is ashamed but is fearful that Tom will tell their superiors the truth about that night among the trenches. Tom says that he won’t but Roger still feels guilty and he gets Tom a job at his father’s bank. However, Tom is not working out as an employee. The pain in his back is terrible and so, his morphine habit has increased. He can barely concentrate on his work and makes mistakes all the time. Roger’s father wants to fire him but Roger keeps fighting to give Tom another chance. One day, Tom is almost going crazy with pain and is waiting for his dealer to come through with more pills. But the price of morphine has increased and Tom can’t pay. Though tempted to steal from his employer, Tom ultimately goes to his doctor to plead for morphine. Tom’s doctor refuses to give him morphine and actually reports Tom to authorities for drug addiction. Tom is taken away and committed, leaving his elderly mother behind.
Almost two years later Tom is cured, but his mother has died, he has lost his job, and he is left with nothing. In his search for a place to live, Tom travels to Chicago where he meets Mary (played by Aline MacMahon), a young woman who runs a small food counter with her father. Mary and her father not only run a place for people to come, eat, and rest when they have nothing, but they also rent rooms. Tom rents their last flat, living across the hall from Max (played by Robert Barrat), and the lovely Ruth (played by Loretta Young). Max is an eccentric German inventor who is also “a Red” per Ruth. Ruth is a sweet young woman who works as a local laundry. Tom is smitten with Ruth immediately and also gets a job at the laundry as a driver.
Time passes and Tom is doing very well at the laundry. When his boss finds out that Tom has come up with a system to actually increase his clientele, when other drivers are having their routes diminished, he promotes him. Tom is now working as the second in command at the laundry and has enough money to marry Ruth. Later on, Tom and Ruth are married and expecting their first child. Max bursts in and tells Tom that he has invented a machine that will revolutionize the laundry industry, not only increasing productivity but decreasing the amount of time the employees need to work. Tom agrees to take the idea to the factory workers, getting their support and monetary support before going to his boss. The new machines are to be installed but with the condition that no workers will be fired from their current jobs. The boss agrees, and also offers to buy out the employees for double what they initially paid for their share in the new machines. Everything is going well, the machines are working, Tom and Ruth have a lovely son named Bill, and everyone is happy. And then the boss of the laundry has a heart attack and dies. Now the laundry is taken over by a large corporation, who do not honor the agreement entered into by the previous boss. The majority of employees are fired and they blame Tom. The Great Depression is beginning and these men and women have no job, no money, no food, and nothing to lose. In their fury a mob forms and heads off to the laundry to destroy the very machines that have taken their livelihood. Tom, fearing that these people will be killed and knowing that this rioting will do nothing to help, hurries off to try to stop them. Ruth meanwhile speeds towards the chaos, looking for her husband and fearing for his safety. From there, tragedy ensues and Tom is swept up in it, persecution, the Red Squad, and the Great Depression.
This film doesn’t have a happy ending, but it has an ending. I found this a truly fascinating film because it was made as the Great Depression was happening. Everything that happened to Tom had really taken place only a few years before this film was made. Interestingly, William Wellman used real hobos and laundry workers as extras in his scenes, perhaps to add authenticity or perhaps to give these people jobs when they were so desperately needed. Loretta Young is quite luminous as the young bride, and Aline MacMahon is both funny and tragic as Mary. Richard Barthelmess portrays Tom as a man trying to be honorable and true, in spite of his circumstances. But he also allows Tom to have moments of anger, which I think is more realistic given Tom’s experiences as well as his painful war wounds both mental and physical.
While some people might think that this film is a product of its time, I think that it still has a place in modern society. On the anniversary of the release of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES it is important to note that while World War II undoubtedly changed the lives of the men and women affected by it, World War I changed the world forever. And just as THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES examined how men returning from war re-entered the ordinary world, HEROES FOR SALE does this as well with one difference. Men returning from World War II found a world that, while different and strange, was prospering economically. The men who returned from World War I soon found themselves faced with poverty and joblessness as the Great Depression took hold. And here is where I think that this film still holds importance in today’s society. In a time where we still talk about the plight of veterans, where we don’t have adequate health care systems for them, where many veterans are homeless or unemployed, can we really say that much has changed?