Wednesday 12 December 2007

Heroes for Sale (1933) William A Wellman

Any new Richard Barthelmess film I can find is a good one and a precode Barthelmess is even better. Here he's Tom Holmes, a soldier fighting in the trenches in World War I, and he accomplishes a difficult mission when his superior officer freezes with fear, bringing back an enemy officer as a prisoner. Unfortunately he gets shot in the process and so his boss Roger Winston gets the credit, and plenty of credit too: a distinguished service cross and a promotion to Major. Winston takes the credit even though he feels terrible about it, through fear.

And then back comes Tom. He survived and spent the rest of the war as a POW in a German hospital to be freed after the armistice on a prisoner exchange with steel splinters in his spinal column and an addiction to morphine to kill the pain. What makes it worse is that he bumps into Winston on the boat back and once he gets out of an American hospital he goes back to work for Winston's father's bank, but loses his job pretty quickly through his addiction amidst some heat of the moment mudslinging.

His life changes once he gets out of the state narcotic farm, cured and discharged. He meets Mary Dennis, who puts him up at her boarding house and fellow boarder Ruth Loring who gets him a job at the laundry she works at. Before long he's climbing the ranks and he and Ruth are married, with a kid on the way. Life is pretty good, but as quickly as things can get better they can get worse and the plot takes us down a number of turns that are as believable as they are surprising.

Beyond great performances from Richard Barthelmess and Aline MacMahon, what makes this film such a powerful precode are the issues it addresses, most of which wouldn't have stood a chance under the code. Beyond the drug issues early on, there's a political angle too involving communism, that great pariah of Americans. It's no red propaganda picture, with the first radical we meet converting to purest capitalism as soon as he has money and the first red mob being simply people bitter at losing their jobs. It's not propaganda the other way either though, exposing the injustice of the red squads and demonstrating how once you get onto a blacklist you stay there, even when you didn't deserve to be there in the first place.

It's easy to interpret this as just the middle ground of common sense, especially from a perspective of hindsight, but it's really an astonishing approach. Tom Holmes is depicted as the real American here: hard working, and courageous, yet decent enough to share what he has with those less fortunate than himself. That's a Christian outlook, not an un-American one. Yet he still becomes an easy victim of the red squads, who a couple of decades later would be the very people defining what counted as 'un-American activities', making this a polemic against the hypocrisy of a name that hadn't been created yet. Fascinating.

The director is William A Wellman, who I really need to start paying more attention to. He seems to be one of the key precode directors, making some interesting and influential films. He made The Public Enemy, for one. What seems surprising to me is that as a confirmed precode fan, I prefer his later work. This is my twelfth Wellman, two thirds of which are precodes, but it's Nothing Sacred, Track of the Cat and especially The Ox-Bow Incident that have impressed me so far.

This is the best of the precodes I've seen, beating out The Public Enemy and Barbara Stanwyck's So Big!, and it's packed with issues. It's only just over 70 minutes long but covers drug addiction, the plight of returning servicemen, communism, the rise of automation, red squads, blacklisting, the Depression, food lines, soup kitchens and the sweep of men across the nation. What amazes most is that none of it seems rushed, at least until the end which like many Warner Brothers movies of the era comes very quickly indeed, as if the filmmakers ran out of film and had to wrap things up quickly.

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