“It takes more than one sock in the jaw to lick 120 million people.”
So says Tom Holmes, played by Richard Barthelmess, in William Wellmann’s pre-Code drama Heroes for Sale, a terrific film, and included in TCM’s Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume Three, a volume dedicated to the early works of Wellmann. The Hays Code was created in 1930, but wasn’t really enforced until 1934, and the difference is startling. Not so much in the quality of movies made. Many of my favorite films of all time were from the 1930s, POST Code. But in the treatment of subject matter, in the willingness to present certain issues in a realistic manner, the lack of euphemism … all of these things really mark the pre-Code films. There are those who have a nostalgia for the Code, but I imagine that those people, like myself, love the films made during the Code – and yet are not aware of what is actually IN the Code, and how vile it is. This is not just about keeping films “clean” and not showing sex or violence. This is about a moral mandate, institutionalized bigotry. Authority figures must not be questioned, religion must not be mocked, any mention of childbirth must be handled with “good taste”, the Code goes on forever, trying to leave no stone unturned. It’s a creepy document. For example, # 7 on the list beneath the heading Sex:
Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden.
Lovely, isn’t it?
So you may indulge yourself in nostalgia for the Code, but please at least realize what you are being nostalgic for. I read the Code, and I actually feel like taking a bath. It’s funny: the Production Code was trying to regulate the morals of the nation, but in so doing, revealed themselves to have the dirtiest minds of all. Isn’t that always the way. The Code states:
The treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy.
Yeah, because all Americans at that time ONLY slept in their bedrooms. Nothing else went on there! Nothing that wasn’t in “good taste”.
I am not one to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I find all of this to be interesting, and, naturally, smart directors and writers found all kinds of pesky ways to get around the Code. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more “lustful” moment on film than the look on Cary Grant’s face when he says to Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings: “Would you like to come up to my room?” You can’t get more explicit than that.
But the pre-Code films continue to fascinate, giving a glimpse of that brief moment in time before the crack-down came, before it was decided what could and could not be shown, and also HOW things should be portrayed (dancing, crime, religion, alcohol, patriotism, etc.). Being so used to the post-Code movies with their artful sneakiness in handling certain issues can make some of these earlier films seem even more startling. Can they say that?? Is that allowed? A film without a clear moral? What is this world coming to? A film where the bad girl is not only NOT punished, but flourishes? And, uhm, a film where a woman is branded like a piece of cattle, and it’s shown on film? (Interesting that the Code specifically mentions “branding” as off-limits (“Branding of people or animals” is listed under “REPELLENT SUBJECTS”). I wonder if that was a direct response to Tallulah Bankhead’s horrifying animalistic shriek as the brand is pressed into her breast.
There will be spoilers here. I hope it doesn’t deter you from seeing the film.
The original title for Heroes for Sale was Breadline, which takes a more documentary approach to the situation portrayed in the film, but look at the cynicism in the chosen title. These are WAR heroes. What happens when a soldier returns? It is not pretty. Heroes for Sale looks at the challenges facing these men, not only returning home wounded, or shattered psychologically (sometimes both), but also the upheaval of the society brought on by the Great Depression. Things are not black and white (one of the key features of the pre-Code films). Even a year later, Heroes For Sale would not have been possible.
Tom Holmes (played by the wonderful Richard Barthelmess) is a soldier fighting in WWI. The opening of the film shows war in a realistic chaotic way. The rain throttles down out of the sky. The trenches are terrifying. The enemy is faceless, but the sound they make roars through the air. The American soldiers know what they have to do, but they are scared. Their fear is showed openly, with no sneer at it (which would be par for the course later). Fear is human. It’s certainly part of war. It doesn’t mean the men are not heroic. Orders have come down, in the middle of a night-time battle, that their next mission is to advance forward, and this time, they are not expected to kill the enemy, but take him prisoner. A far more risky proposition. The men stand huddled in a tent. Wellmann films it with dark shadows, the sounds of explosions outside, the rain battering the tent. It’s gloom placed on top of gloom. They all look at one another, and they know what this means. 9 out of 10 of them will die in the attempt. They know it. No one speaks it, but the knowledge is there, palpably. Men light their soggy cigarettes with shaking fingers. It’s a tense scene, beautifully rendered by the actors, and the production design, which gives it all the sense of being a last (and perhaps) meaningless stand. It is the first scene in the movie. We don’t even know who any of these people are yet. It throws us right into the middle of the action. The men begin their mission. The mud is like something out of a nightmare, it’s dark, the rain pours down, and Wellmann shows the approach out of the trench, as one after the other is mowed down. It is slaughter. Beautiful work, by everyone.
Roger Winston (Gordon Westcott, in a terrific performance, he would be dead 2 years later after falling off his polo horse, exactly like Christopher Reeve) is the Sergeant. He and Tom are from the same town. They huddle in a trench, waiting for their turn to charge. They have the following exchange:
Tom: You scared, Roger?
Roger: Unofficially, yes.
Tom: Me too. Only you can make mine official.
Pretty honest. It is these subtleties that would be lost once the Code was enforced.
Yet, they do what they have to do. In a brutal scene, Tom comes face to face with a German soldier and shouts at him, through the rain, to surrender. The German does. At that moment, Tom is shot in the back and falls over the trench, screaming to Roger to “take him in, take him in”. Roger, torn between helping his friend and completing his mission, takes the German soldier prisoner and struggles off through the mud, leaving Tom to die. But they knew this going in, that this was a possibility. Tough choices made by tough men.
Roger, back in the tent, is congratulated for his bravery. People crowd in to shake his hand. Roger, knowing that he did nothing but cower in the mud, that the heroism is all Tom’s, out there dead in the mud, is devastated. Watch how Westcott shows this. He is a marvelous actor. He is truly pained. Ashamed. And yet, who wouldn’t want to have everyone think you’re a hero? He tries to come clean, but people keep interrupting him, telling him not to be modest. We learn later what kind of a world Roger comes from, he’s a rich boy on a hill, his father is a prominent banker, status and image is very important to his family. It has weakened him, morally. Think of the radical notion of that. He knows he did wrong, he knows that Tom is probably dead out there, and he is now basking in someone else’s glory, but he doesn’t speak. This is not shown as a malicious or cunning choice. It is shown in all its complexity, accepting that men under pressure often do not behave in honorable ways. And they feel terrible about it. In a very serious way, the choice Roger makes in that wet tent in the middle of the trenches, ruins his life. He can never shake the haunting memory of what he has done, what he is capable of.
Because it turns out, that Tom did not die out there. He is seriously wounded, but he is rescued by a German Red Cross team. He spends the rest of the war in a German hospital, a prisoner of war essentially, but a very sick man. The Germans in the film are portrayed as realistically as the Americans. They are not some “other”, they are not the enemy (TM). They’re soldiers, just like the Americans. Another radical pre-Code touch, which would be lost in the intervening years. In the German hospital, Tom is given morphine for the pain.
By the time he leaves, he is a serious drug addict. There is only so much that can be done for his condition. He still has splinters of steel along his spine, which cannot be removed without serious injury or perhaps death. He will have to spend the rest of his life managing his pain. While Tom’s morphine addiction is not presented as quite as harrowing as Mary’s in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (or, as an angry commenter recently informed me: a “DOWNER” – and that, for him, was a bad thing. People want to be entertained, he told me. So we always need to see the bright side, right? Even of morphine addiction? Maybe it shouldn’t be shown at all! That would solve all the problems of these pesky artists writing all of these “downers”. This commenter would have been a great official for the Hays Code!)
Speaking of the Code (and I’ll try to stop beating that drum, but Heroes For Sale, not very well-known, certainly not as well-known as the films that really prompted the Code being enforced – Baby Face, Public Enemy, etc. – is a very good example of some of the subtlety that was legislated out of existence when that Code came down), the portrayal of drug addiction was strictly forbidden.
Illegal drug traffic must never be presented … Because of its evil consequences, the drug traffic should not be presented in any form. The existence of the trade should not be brought to the attention of audiences.
Holmes’s morphine addiction is treated with honesty. It happens. It’s terrible. Not just for their loved ones, but for the person suffering. He returns home to America after the armistice is signed. On the boat back, he runs into Roger, who now is highly decorated because of his bravery. One of the best parts of Barthelmess’ portrayal is that he is a realistic man, and also a compassionate man. It is Roger who suffers the consequences. It’s almost worse that Tom is so understanding about the whole thing. It would be better if Tom hated him. Roger is a tormented man.
But Tom says to him, with a gentle sort of half-grin, “I am pretty sure I would have done the same thing.” What a nice way to look at friendship. It’s not simple all the time. And friends do forgive one another some pretty awful things.
Back in the States, things begin to play out in an inevitable fashion. Tom moves in with his mother. Roger is the toast of the town. Perhaps because of the guilt he feels, Roger gets Tom a job at his father’s bank. We immediately can sense, however, that Tom is starting to fall apart. His need for morphine is running his life. He sits behind the bars at the bank (a perhaps too-obvious metaphor for the entrapment of drug addiction), drenched in sweat, worrying over the numbers he has to tally up, and he can’t concentrate because he needs his fix. To address the Code and its idiocy: seeing a man in the throes of drug addiction does not make one want to become a drug addict. It has the opposite effect. Not only that, but it can actually intensify your compassion for those who suffer so. It would take a hard heart, indeed, to watch Barthelmess in these early scenes, and think scornfully of his weak character, how “bad” he is. That doesn’t even come into play. All you can see is a man at the end of his rope. His doctor sympathizes but he warns Tom that he cannot fill any more prescriptions without reporting the case to the authorities. Tom stands at the door and shouts at the doctor, “What am I supposed to do?” There is true anguish in Barthelmess here. It’s heart-rending. Tom goes to the streets. Tries to get drugs from shady characters in doorways, but they turn him down for this or that reason.
Finally, Tom is reported, and he is committed to the “Narcotic State Farm”.
One of the problems with Heroes For Sale (and this is nitpicky, especially with a film as fine as this one, but I feel I should mention it) is that it has about eight full acts. It’s too much. Wellmann keeps us on track, with calendar years flying by us, and effective editing (a sign showing “Narcotic State Farm”, then a shot of a hand pulling out a file with Tom’s name on it, and a doctor signing his name to admit Tom – then the next shot, same file pulled out, hand signing his name, and then stamping the file: CURED AND RELEASED – a year of time is handled in three shots. Ah, economy!) But it does try to do too much, and there are times when you feel like you are slogging from event to event, with no overarching purpose. However, this is not a fatal flaw, as it might have been with other films, because of the universal excellence of the acting (even the extras are fantastic), and the fact that everyone creates characters that are interesting, who have places to go, emotionally and otherwise. Heroes for Sale has scope. Maybe too much? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
Tom moves to Chicago after being released from the hospital, to make a fresh start. He gets a room in a boarding house, run by Mary, a no-nonsense yet warm and funny human being, played by Aline MacMahon, in yet another exquisite performance from this wonderful character actress.
I love Heroes for Sale because it allows her to be human, too. She’s not a caricature. She is allowed her own moments (including one absolutely killer closeup in a scene that moved me to tears the first time I saw it – when you see it, you’ll know exactly the one I mean), her own personality. She’s not just “support staff”. There are only two other boarders in the boarding house – a German communist (“He’s a Red,” Mary tells Tom) named Mr. Brinker, played broadly (and rather annoyingly at times) by Robert Barrat, and a young working girl named Ruth, played by a glowingly beautiful Loretta Young. The second Tom lays eyes on Ruth, he’s in love. His surroundings may be dreary, his room may look out on a brick wall, but suddenly he has hope. He might be able to make a life for himself, with this lovely girl at his side. In a touchingly old-school way, he asks her out immediately, letting his interest in her be known. She seems like a positive and warm person, and she likes him. A romance starts. She works in a laundry, and she gets him a job there as a driver.
Almost immediately, Tom shows an entrepreneurial ingenuity with his job, finding ways to increase the numbers of his laundry route. The higher-ups notice. Give him a promotion.
“The Red”, Mr. Brinker, is an inventor. He is always emerging from his room in his long-johns, demanding of the other boarders if anyone has a chisel. The funniest thing about this portrayal is that Communism is seen as kind of amusing (see the fantastic Comrade X for another example), and ultimately corruptible – which, in this universe, is a HOPEFUL sign. No ideology is so rigid that it can resist the call of making money. Mr. Brinker rants and raves about the employers, and how the workers are “slaves”, and sniffs at things like profit and bottom line, but when he invents a new kind of laundry-apparatus that would make things more efficient, and gets a patent for it, and suddenly starts raking in the dough, he becomes an unrepentant Capitalist. It doesn’t have the paranoia about Communism that later films have. This is the early 30s, remember. Hitler was the enemy. Russia was the Great Unknown. I really liked that aspect of the character. He has no convictions, actually.
Tom teases him at one point: “You used to hate the capitalists!” Brinker replies emphatically, “Naturally! But that was before I had money!”
I love the observation of that, the social and political critique, leavened with humor.
The plot marches on. Tom and Ruth get married. They have a son. Tom has pitched the laundry-machine to his bosses, and says he will sell it to them ONLY IF it means actual human beings won’t lose their jobs. They have an agreement. But then hard times come, and the laundry is bought by a larger consolidation. The agreement is broken, and 3/4s of the work force lose their jobs.
Wellmann uses two identical tracking shots to show the transformation: Early on in the film, the camera pans through the giant laundry, (and apparently many of the extras were actual employees at a laundry), showing people busy at work, folding and washing and drying, a hub of human activity. And then, later, same tracking shot, and we see the same space, empty of humans, with the machines busy at work. A bleak and realistic portrayal of what technology can do, a huge worry at that time. Will humans become obsolete?
Tom finds himself on the firing line for this. Angry mobs of men show up at his brownstone home, shouting at him about his betrayal. He tries to reason with them, tell them that he did his best, but they are having none of it. The mob decides to go to the laundry and break all the machines. Tom screams at them that this will do no good, they will only build more. But the mob charges off into the night.
The scenes of riot are filmed with a jagged sense of immediacy. You feel you are looking at a situation that is about to spin wildly out of control. It’s frightening. Police advance on the crowd. Tear gas shots are fired. All hell breaks loose. Tom is in the middle of it, still trying to reason, but it’s too late. Barthelmess’s desperation here is heart-wrenching. Ruth, panicked, calls Mary to come watch her son, so she can run down to the laundry to be with her husband. In the riot, she is struck in the face with a rock, and she falls to the ground. Death, even a year later, would be cleaned up a lot in Hollywood movies, but here, her face is covered with blood, and her eyes are open, staring sightlessly up into the air. It is a memorable shot, unblinking in its willingness to show reality, and the moment is horrifying. Nothing up until this point has prepared us for THAT to happen. Barthelmess, being held down by two cops, is screaming, “THAT’S MY WIFE, THAT’S MY WIFE”, but they won’t release him to go to her. All around is the chaos of the mob.
There are at least two more acts to go in Heroes for Sale, gritty and terrible, but Wellmann does not tip his action over into melodrama. This is a drama, end-stop. It shows its characters, flaws and all, and follows them on their bumpy journey through life, and through a time of great upheaval in American history. 1918 to 1933 saw a lot of changes, and the worst was yet to come, but Heroes For Sale, while it could be seen as a piece of propaganda (“Can’t we do better for ourselves? Can’t we do better for our returning veterans? Can’t we just treat people better?”), it is also an examination of the economics and transformations that went down during that time, all seen through the eyes of people we come to care about deeply.
Richard Barthelmess has a kind of stiffness to him at times, which works wonderfully when he is in the right material. It worked great in Only Angels Have Wings. He is a man who feels things intensely, but is quite embattled about letting those feelings show. Howard Hawks spoke of the difficulties Barthelmess had in crying onscreen, but there is a scene here, a goodbye scene with his young son (who is about 3 years old) which is heartbreaking, and Barthelmess is obviously moved, spontaneously. It’s a beautiful moment of watching someone respond, in an organic way, to a completely imaginary situation, the definition of good acting. The son is portrayed in later scenes as a kid of 8 or 9, but he has more of the stilted child-actor precocity that is so annoying, and was even worse at that time in movies. Children are often appallingly sweet in “old” movies (see the little kid in Penny Serenade for a perfect example of how awful, how truly nauseating they were encouraged to be). But the little 3 year old in Heroes For Sale (he is not listed in the credits) gives an unbelievable performance in this one scene, totally uninhibited, even though he has some tough things to do. He has to scream and cry, “I don’t want you to go, I don’t want you to go” – and however this little boy was able to tap into those emotions (I don’t even want to know), he nails it. Barthelmess holds him at one point, in tears, and the little boy sweetly reaches out and brushes his hand across his father’s cheek, following the tracks of the tears. It’s an extraordinary performance by a wee young thing. The scene would be maudlin otherwise. Here, in the hands of Wellmann, Barthelmess, and young unnamed boy, it is heartwrenching.
With moments of wit (so necessary with bleak material like this), Heroes For Sale attempts to examine the state of American life at that time, with “poor people” shuffling in a line outside soup kitchens, and huge signs on the edge of town stating:
This is how we lived then. Mr. Brinker, the Red turned capitalist, scoffs at the unemployed, calling them “moochers” and “loafers”. We can see parallels to certain attitudes that persist today, in the portrayal of drug addiction (these people are seen as bad and weak, the boss at the bank rails at Tom for his “cowardly loathsome habit” and how disappointed his mother must be having raised her son to lead “a good Christian life”) – and the contempt shown towards people who can’t find work, they must be lazy, good-for-nothings, and they should be ashamed for accepting “handouts”. (I am thinking of the recent moment at a rally where a man threw dollar bills at a guy suffering from Parkinson’s. Disgusting.) Heroes For Sale pulls no punches in its portrayal of the lack of sympathy we so often show one another. But it makes its point: There are no “good” people, and there are no “bad” people. There are people who make choices. Choices that seem right at the time, and maybe are right, but there are always unintended consequences. How do we handle ourselves when the chips start to fall? How do we try to maintain human dignity when the world seems to be demanding of us that we fall to our knees?
Tom Holmes is an Everyman. He is not a “star”, he’s not extraordinary, he’s like so many men at so many different times: he wants to have a good life, he wants to provide for his family, he wants to have work that doesn’t demean him or anyone else. He does the best he can.
And so Tom’s line, that opens this post, spoken at a moment when the Great Depression was at its most ravaging, becomes an optimistic patriotic message, a belief in the system, a belief in people in general, even when it has crushed him down to a powder.
The last scene of Heroes For Sale is unnecessary, and re-states its message too obviously, so Wellmann will be sure that we will “get it”, in no uncertain terms, but it doesn’t lessen the impact of the whole. We “got it” long before then, and that is a testament to Wellmann and, mainly, to Richard Barthelmess, whose impassioned, committed and specific performance represents the best that the industry has to offer.