Cast & Crew
William A. Wellman
During World War I, Lieutenant Roger Winston is assigned to capture a German prisoner. Overcome by fear, he hides in a foxhole while Tom Holmes, another soldier from the same town, carries out the mission. On the way back, Tom is struck by a shell and Roger returns with the prisoner. Roger is promoted and decorated for bravery. Returning to America after the war, Roger meets Tom, who he believed to be dead. Tom's life was saved by the Germans, but in the prisoner of war camp, he took morphine for his pain and is now addicted to the drug. Roger gets Tom a job in his father's bank, but his addiction gets him fired. He is sent to a sanitarium where he overcomes his addiction but in the meantime, his mother dies from the disgrace. Tom goes to Chicago to look for a job and there he meets Ruth, a young woman who works in a laundry. They fall in love, marry, and have a child. Max, a socialist who lives in the same roominghouse, invents a laundry machine. Tom, who is now employed at the laundry, convinces his fellow workers to invest in the machine, but when the benevolent laundry owner dies, the new owners use the machine to lay off workers. The fired workers riot, Ruth is killed, and Tom is sent to prison for five years, even though he tried to prevent the mob from attacking the laundry. Max makes a lot of money from his invention and gives half to Tom as his share. Tom will not touch what he calls blood money and turns it over to Mary Dennis, the owner of his roominghouse, to feed the jobless. Believing Tom to be a Communist, the police drive him out of town, and he becomes a homeless wanderer unable to find a job. On the road, he meets Roger, whose father's bank failed because of mismanagement. Although the police drive them back on the road, the two veterans express hope that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal will improve the lot of the poor.
William A. Wellman
George Pat Collins
Heroes For Sale
Actually, the characters have plenty to fear. They just don't fear it, especially Richard Barthelmess's World War I veteran. After taking a shellacking from life, he's still upright at the end when he says, "It takes more than one sock on the jaw to lick a hundred and twenty people." Barthelmess, who came to fame as Lillian Gish's leading man for D.W. Griffith, was one of the handful of silent movie stars who enjoyed a career in the sound era. His Frank Merriwell grit gets quite a workout, starting in a scene of trench warfare, when he's painfully wounded and left for dead, another soldier gets credited for his act of heroism, and he's taken prisoner by the Germans. His wounds are treated, but as a result, he returns a morphine addict.
In contrast to the heated war propaganda of the WW I era, Heroes for Sale, while not going so far as to portray Germans sympathetically, does at least portray the German doctor as a humane and honorable man. Nor does it stigmatize Barthelmess's addict, Tom Holmes. When his addiction becomes apparent, he's sentenced to a state facility, goes cold turkey, and subsequently proves he's a man of character, several times over. The film reserves its contempt for the doughboy, a banker's son, who spinelessly appropriated Barthelmess's heroic act and returned home medal-bedecked. For keeping silent about what really happened, the real hero is rewarded with a job in the bank of the false hero's father. When the old man finds out about Tom's addiction, he sanctimoniously dismisses him. He epitomizes the film's perception of capitalist bosses failing America.
The tough matter-of-factness with which the WWI sequences are filmed stems in part from Wellman's own experience in the war, although he fought it from the cockpit of a primitive plane (only four controls, no parachute) as a member of the Lafayette Flying Squad. Later, of course, came the first Oscar® winner, Wings (1927), based on Wellman's war experiences. It invented the airplane movie genre and still has flying sequences that have never been surpassed. Wellman's image as a Hollywood wild man was fed by his practice of landing his plane on the polo field of his friend, Douglas Fairbanks, who got Wellman his first Hollywood jobs. Only a man who had experienced combat could open Heroes for Sale with a throwaway scene, as Wellman does, in which an officer sends ten men on a suicide mission because "that's all I can afford to lose."
Heroes for Sale is an odd mix of tough-mindedness and populist verve. The rehabbed Tom goes to Chicago, rents a room above a free soup kitchen run by kind-hearted Mary Dennis (Aline MacMahon), meets (and marries) fellow roomer Ruth Loring (Loretta Young), gets a job at the commercial laundry where she works, and loses no time proving himself a go-getter. He also deflects the comes-the-revolution ravings of another roomer, a self-declared communist (Robert Barrat). The film easily, if not quite naturally, reflects its Depression-era realities. Life is stark. And there's lots of class anger to go around. But Wellman and screenwriters Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner aren't about to buy into any isms. The communist is depicted as a buffoon. Later, when he gets rich from an invention that automates operations at the laundry, and Tom gets rich with him, the communist turns fervent capitalist, declaring that money is all, now that he has a lot of it. Thus, the film avoids confronting seriously any arguments for change by ridiculing the character who had advocated it, painting him as shallow and easily separated from his professed ideals.
But as Tom begins to climb the ladder he's slammed by a new set of circumstances. The kindly capitalist owner of the laundry dies. The machines they all thought would ease the workers' lot are used by the new owners to downsize the labor force. When the now unemployed workers march (in suits, collars, ties and hats!) on the laundry to smash the machines, Luddite-fashion, they're met by cops, thinly disguised minions of the owners of the means of production, who identify the interests of the bosses with the public good. Violence erupts, Tom's wife is killed when she's struck down by a cop's nightstick (leaving their son motherless), and he's jailed as a trouble-fomenting Red. Although his young son is cared for by the soup kitchen saint, with Tom pumping his share of the laundry machine royalties into the soup kitchen's upkeep, his troubles don't end.
No sooner is he released from prison, than he's run out of town by the local Red Squad. He rides the rails, lives in hobo jungles, even though he's roughed up at first by the other hoboes in this film that simultaneously romanticizes and takes a dim view of them. Squaring his jaw one last time, presumably motivated by something between penance and an urge to canonization, Barthelmess's classy Everyman embraces life on the road. Refusing to succumb to cynicism, and anything but a broken man (one cynically remembers that his was the name above the film's title, and the one used to sell tickets), he proclaims his (well, FDR's) upbeat message, anticipating Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.
If that ringingly pro-proletarian work, and soul mates like The Cradle Will Rock, seem bolder-contoured and more proclamatory, films such as Heroes for Sale -- half-digested as they are, ring more true, more powerful, strike a deeper chord precisely because they are less self-consciously message films, and more like daily newspapers being slammed out under deadline pressure. They simmer with tabloid vigor, fielding the realities as they unfolded in America's collective experience, with no time to digest them or reflect upon them. It's very much reactive cinema, not reflective cinema. As such, it avoids the pitfalls of message-mongering, letting texture and details not speeches -- carry the message.
It's material well-suited to the muscular style of Wellman, who used real hoboes in the hobo scenes and real laundry workers in the laundry scenes, and told an interviewer in Film Comment that he never shot a scene more than twice. Later in 1933, he followed Heroes for Sale with Wild Boys of the Road, another film steeped in the realities of the Depression, again ending with a voice of hope (Barrat, the buffoon caricature of communism in Heroes for Sale, this time as a judge who gives four wayward boys another chance). This may have been rooted in Wellman's admiring view of the lifelong work of his beloved mother, a probation officer in Massachusetts (she gave him his lifelong nickname, Wild Bill, saying that she could bring any boy into line but her own son!). Both of these Depression-era films are about hanging in there until a new day dawns on a new deal. Or, rather, New Deal. Pungent, richly-textured and strongly-felt, Heroes for Sale, about a hero who is not for sale, deserves to be better known.
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: William A. Wellman
Screenplay: Robert Lord, Wilson Mizner
Cinematography: James Van Trees
Film Editing: Howard Bretherton
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Music: Leo F. Forbstein
Cast: Richard Barthelmess (Thomas Holmes), Aline MacMahon (Mary Dennis), Loretta Young (Ruth Loring Holmes), Gordon Westcott (Roger Winston), Robert Barrat (Max Brinker), Berton Churchill (Mr. Winston).
by Jay Carr
A Short Time for Insanity: An Autobiography, by William A. Wellman
William A. Wellman, by Frank T. Thompson
Wild Bill: William A. Wellman, 1978 interview by Scott Eyman in Focus on Film #29, reprinted in Film Comment, 2004
Heroes For Sale
Heroes For Sale - Richard Barthelmess Stars in William Wellman's HEROES FOR SALE on DVD
Richard Barthelmess stars as the everyman whose WWI combat heroics are wrongly credited to his best friend (Gordon Westcott) after Barthelmess is presumed dead. In reality, Barthelmess spends the rest of the war at a German POW camp, where due to his injuries he becomes addicted to morphine. Reunited with Westcott on the boat back home after the armistice is signed, he forgives his old friend and takes a job in the Westcott family bank. The drug addiction keeps him from working reliably, however, and he goes off the deep end. (The depiction of drug addiction is the main "pre-Code" element of the film.) After a stint in rehab, he starts a good job in a laundry business that also employs his new girlfriend, the stunning Loretta Young. But great success is followed by great calamity, and the rest of the story finds the economic hardships of the Depression taking their toll on Barthelmess and everyone else.
Perhaps most impressively, Heroes For Sale stays true to itself with a grim ending that does not offer much hope. (A tacked-on final scene half-heartedly tries to but fails.) After all, the picture was released in June 1933, a time when there was no end in sight to the Depression, and appropriately, the movie shows no end in sight either. The unrelenting nature of what we see is still extraordinarily powerful, mostly because director William Wellman is so skillful at making us experience it subjectively.
At its best, Heroes For Sale has something of a documentary-like feel, especially in its first third or so, in which the straightforwardness of the story and storytelling suggest a fatalism that would later become common in film noir. Later on, the picture devolves into melodrama, especially when Barthelmess becomes a bit too martyr-like to be believed, but overall Wellman knows how to keep things compelling, and his film tells more story in its first ten minutes than many movies do in two hours.
Watching Heroes For Sale, one marvels at the storytelling techniques that Wellman carried over from his silent-movie days. Scene after scene here can be watched with the sound off and still be clearly understood. Take a little sequence, for example, in which Barthelmess is committed to drug rehab and released. We see a doctor solemnly start to make a phone call; then a close-up of an index card, with Barthelmess's name and personal info, being stamped with the date and inserted into a drawer of hundreds of other cards; as the drawer closes, we fade out; fade in on the drawer being opened, the card removed, stamped with a "cured and discharged" label, and dated six months later; fade out and cut to a cemetery, where Barthelmess looks at his mother's gravestone, which tells us she died the day after he was sent to rehab; a pan to another gravestone tells us his father died many years earlier; cut back to Barthelmess looking more alone than ever as he walks away; fade out.
That sequence, without a word of dialogue, tells story, develops character and conveys emotion compellingly and economically. While there are indeed printed words within the shots (on the index card and gravestones), it's the shots themselves and the music that accompanies them that express all we need to know.
Barthelmess was one of the few silent stars to transition successfully from silents to talkies, though he is forgotten today. He delivers here, and is supported by Loretta Young, fine as always, and the delightfully warm character actors Charles Grapewin and Aline McMahon.
Heroes For Sale comes as part of Warner Home Video's welcome new box set Forbidden Hollywood Collection Vol. 3: William Wellman at Warner Bros. This is, obviously, the third collection of pre-Code movies to come from the Warner library, and it contains an important companion piece to Heroes For Sale in Wild Boys of the Road (1933), a similarly hard-hitting, powerful slice of the Great Depression. Also included are Other Men's Women (1931), Frisco Jenny (1932), The Purchase Price (1932) and Midnight Mary (1933), as well as two documentaries on Wellman, cartoons, trailers, and some enjoyable S.S. Van Dine mystery shorts. The one on Heroes For Sale is The Trans-Atlantic Mystery, which features Ray Collins in one of his earliest screen appearances, several years before he became one of Orson Welles' stock players. Three films in the set come with audio commentaries. Heroes For Sale's is by John Gallagher, who is well-versed in the career of Wellman, knows where everything was filmed, and has much firsthand information on the director from those who worked with him, but speaks surprisingly little about the film itself.
The six titles in this collection represent an impressive burst of creativity by Wellman between 1931 and 1933. It's even more impressive when one realizes that the man directed ten further films in the same span, including classics like Public Enemy (1931) and Night Nurse (1931). Of course, Wellman was a contract director, which means he was simply assigned these films and went out and did them, but they show more than someone just doing a job. They show a craftsman operating fluidly and expressively, injecting real emotion into his work and taking risks that pay off.
For more information about Heroes for Sale, visit Warner Video. To order Heroes for Sale (it is only available as part of the Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 3 set), go to TCM Shopping.
by Jeremy Arnold
Heroes For Sale - Richard Barthelmess Stars in William Wellman's HEROES FOR SALE on DVD
The working title of the film was Breadline. Warner Bros.' production records in the file on the film in the AMPAS library indicate that the film had a shooting schedule of twenty-four days and cost $290,000. According to press notes, director William Wellman used real hoboes for the fight scene and real laundry workers for the laundry scenes. The war scenes were shot on the Warner Bros. Ranch in CA. This was Wilson Mizner's last script. He died from heart disease shortly after finishing the script. A news item in Film Daily notes that Guy Kibbee was being considered for an important role in the film, but he was not in the viewed print and his participation in the final film has not been confirmed.