In Heroes for Sale, William A Wellman presents discontentment with the old and hope for the new, steeped in govt propaganda
Heroes for Sale was made just after Roosevelt swore in as the 32nd president of the United States. As though symptomatic of this particular time, the film embodies both a discontentment with the preceding Hoover administration and a hope for the new one, the duality manifesting as an incongruity between plot and character.
'At the Movies' is a fortnightly column on Hollywood's Golden Era (1920s-50s) revisiting films of historical, cultural and/or aesthetic significance. Read more from the series here.
Warner Brothers was arguably the most interesting film production house of the 1930s, certainly at least from a political and social point of view. Like other studios, it knew how to harness the Depression-era audience’s desire to escape the doom and gloom around them by offering cheerful backstage musicals. But Warner also proved itself willing and capable of registering the harsh reality that this audience lived in. The studio’s tendency to both profit from the general resentment and to assuage it with uplifting messages of hope and courage may have its roots in the political leanings of its chief Jack Warner, a heavyweight supporter of Franklin D Roosevelt who is said to have gotten his wartime directives straight from the White House.
Heroes for Sale (1933) was produced by First National Pictures, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers’ that mostly handled the studio’s second-tier products. There were few stars in these films and the budgets were relatively low, which allowed them to be bold in their choice of plot and setting. While in a Warner Bros picture, tragic stories would regularly be attenuated with a tacked-on happy ending, the First National films didn’t need to sugarcoat their bitter vision. Heroes for Sale was made just after Roosevelt swore in as the 32nd president of the United States. As though symptomatic of this particular time, the film embodies both a discontentment with the preceding Hoover administration and a hope for the new one, the duality manifesting as an incongruity between plot and character.
Injured in combat during the war, Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) returns home to discover that the military accolades he deserves have been given to his army peer Roger (Gordon Westcott). Not wishing to rock the boat, Tom takes up a modest clerical job at the bank run by Roger’s father, only to be crippled by, and sacked for, a morphine addiction he acquired at a German POW hospital. After rehabilitation, Tom starts a family and successfully runs a laundry in Chicago, but finds himself unwittingly caught up in a riot following a wave of automation and job loss. Returning from an imprisonment of five years, he learns he is on a list of suspected communists, and is forced to wander the country as a drifter without a home, a family or a job.
The script, by Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner (an opium addict himself), has a stark anti-establishment bent. Throughout the film, we witness authority being abused to crush the little man that Tom represents: a commander who sends his soldiers on an impossible mission, a banker who misappropriates people’s money, businessmen who sack their employees without a second thought, police who fire at protestors, law that accords disproportional punishment to white- and blue-collar crimes, enforcers chasing vagabonds from their camps. Heroes for Sale is punctuated by images drawn from real events of the preceding years, such as urban breadlines, the veterans’ march to Washington and the ensuing firing. At the end, Tom tells Roger, both hobos on the run now: “You started way up high and I started pretty low. And we end up here in the rain, together.”
While the grim analysis above remains faithful to the reality of the Great Depression, the reaction to it suggested by Heroes for Sale is one of stoic acceptance. All through his ordeals, Tom refuses revolts against his lot, nor does he switch over to the wrong side of the law. As a result, the account of his constant exile from society — army, rehabilitation centre, prison, endless wandering as a vagrant — scans like a modern-day Book of Job, where Christian forbearance, charity and an unquestioning faith in powers that be are presented as the noblest possible response to relentless suffering. This answer is justified by the failure of the anti-automation riot Tom tries to prevent, as well as by the presence of the inventor Max (Robert Barrat), a caricatural communist who is simply a disgruntled capitalist at heart.
This call for patience is wholly in line with the studio’s support for the new regime and the promises of the New Deal. In fact, the film devolves into an unveiled propaganda for Roosevelt towards the end. “It takes more than one sock in the jaw to lick 120 million people,” says Tom to Roger, explicitly referring to the new president’s inaugural address. The economy, and with it the morale of the nation, will rise again is the message. After one hour of attacking one American institution after another, here’s a turnabout, an unfounded appeal for trust. Trust in institutions, especially the banking establishments that had lost public legitimacy after the stock market collapse, was what the Warner brothers would have liked too; their existence depended on it: Goldman Sachs was on advisory board of the studio and had co-financed its purchase of First National Pictures.
Director William A Wellman’s style is notoriously hard to pin down; his personal vision of the world, even more so. There is little formal or thematic consistency across his body of work, except perhaps a certain taste for gritty realism expressed in particular details of action, gesture and setting. Any line of moral, political or philosophical thought one can discern in one film will invariably be contradicted in another. As critic David Phelps puts it, “the films have no metaphysics but physics.” As a result, critical consensus on his work still remains unresolved, his status as a major American filmmaker open to question. Manny Farber was a great admirer of the textures in his films, asserting that “when Wellman finishes with a service station or the wooden stairs in front of an ancient saloon, there’s no reason for any movie realist to handle the subject again.” In contrast, Andrew Sarris declared that, with Wellman, “objectivity is the last refuge for mediocrity.”
Be that as it may, Wellman brings a lean muscularity to Heroes for Sale, which possesses a novelistic sprawl without ever turning laboured or precious. The film hurtles from one genre, one setting to another, making vast leaps in time that are all the more striking in that they are executed with straight cuts without transitions. Wellman’s characteristic camera movements expand and contract spaces with considerable effectiveness. He tracks across the laundry floor twice to show the wrecking impact of automation on the employees. Wellman steers clear of sentimentalism despite the thoroughly melodramatic construction of the scenario. A comparison with his collaboration with David O Selznick, a high-strung sentimentalist, a few months before in The Conquerors (1932) reveals how light-footed Heroes for Sale actually is.
There’s something about Wellman’s style that makes it free of value judgments about what is being depicted. To be sure, scenes can provoke the desired emotion in the viewer, but only in so far as the script needs it. Many episodes in Wellman’s work seem to unfold in the passive voice, displacing interest from the characters on to the action they are embedded in. The riot sequence in Heroes for Sale is a good example. The strikers wreck the laundry and hurl stones at the police, who fire back. The camera pushes through the fighting mass to pick up Tom’s wife, who has come to look for him. A barely perceptible blow to her jaw knocks her down dead. Since the previous shot shows both the rioters and the police wielding batons, we are not sure who is delivered the blow. Wellman’s staging and editing of the action takes no sides, shifting the emphasis from assigning responsibility to describing results. A riot took place, blows were exchanged, a woman was killed.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B
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