Heroes for Sale
Reviewed in January 2012 / Click Here to Comment
Written on the occasion of the late Loretta Young's 99th birthday.
Director: William Wellman. Cast: Richard Barthelmess, Gordon Westcott, Aline MacMahon, Loretta Young, Robert Barrat, Grant Mitchell, Charley Grapewin, Berton Churchill, George Irving, G. Pat Collins, Edwin Maxwell, Robert McWade, James Murray, Ronnie Cosby, Robert Elliott, Charles C. Wilson, Ward Bond, Mike Donlin, Larry McGrath, John "Skins" Miller, Bob Perry, Leo White, Tammany Young, Milton Kibbee. Screenplay: Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner.
Twitter Capsule: Story hustles through big events but thrives under that Wellman style: high-speed, muscular, arrestingly poignant

Photo © 1933 First National Pictures
As someone who writes, researches, and teaches about sexuality in the movies for a living, I am perhaps an odd candidate to express the sentiment that sometimes we think too much about sexuality in the movies. A case in point is Hollywood's Pre-Code era, known to those who adore it as an approximately four-year hotbed of erotically daring images and storylines that the studios would never have cleared once the Hays Code crackdown went into effect in 1934. When you're not hearing about the randy risk-taking in movies like Baby Face and The Sign of the Cross, Pre-Code conversations emphasize the grisly violence and the heroicizing of gangsters, sympathetic criminals, and charismatic thugs on which Hollywood storytellers would also be forced to retrench. But in addition to the censorship of such salacious or morally complicated images, the Code also battened down the hatches on some movies that promulgated risky political ideas and some goads toward collective agitation. A case in point is William Wellman's Heroes for Sale, which offers a sympathetic portrait of a war veteran turned morphine addict turned big-money entrepreneur turned imprisoned Communist turned exiled tramp. The least savory characters in the film are capitalist sell-outs and Red-baiting government agents, and though a massive labor uprising winds up with some really nasty blood on its hands, Heroes for Sale refuses to present this as evidence that the uprising should not have happened.

Rendered with that combination of bluntness and poetic empathy that Wellman exercised so ingeniously, especially when working on low budgets and in this particular period of his durable career, Heroes for Sale is less of an Occupy Wall Street precursor than a forerunner of the Battle in Seattle. Its protests of social inequality and the steady dehumanization of labor are not gauzy or diffuse but fully roused behind a clear idea: that a combined program of benevolent charity from those who can afford it plus forceful pushback, by any means necessary, against those whose policies make charity necessary is the only way to rectify a diseased situation. Granted, the film retrenches on a few of its fiercer points, but not before they've had a lot of time to hang in the air, drawing a lot of support from the on-screen characters and surely among the audience. The gutsiest exemplar of this aspect of the film—the one that makes you look for Clifford Odets's name in the screenwriting credits, though you don't wind up finding it there—is the unabashedly vehement Communism of second-tier character Max Brinker (Robert Barrat), a resident of the same boarding house where protagonist Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) has taken up quarters. Max is idiosyncratic and just a few hairs shy of Teutonic caricature, but through the blocking and editing of scenes, Heroes extends total credence to his point of view when he indicts capitalism as a withering system that only short-sighted people buy into. The movie understands how many of us fall into that category, and why: we equate money with contentment and protection, whether or not we want to, and maybe some of us happen to like our bosses.

Max's tirades continue even as we watch Tom, the troubled veteran and recovering dope-fiend, struggle to find a room and a job, and then then luck into both. At virtually the same time, and not at all coincidentally, he sets up with a gorgeous and supportive new love interest, Ruth (Loretta Young), enjoys the bonhomie of their landlady, Mary (Aline MacMahon), and discovers that his employer at the laundry plant, Mr. Gibson (Berton Churchill), recognizes his talents and even encourages his innovations. That's the kind of heavily ballasted middle-class dream-scenario—particularly if you recall that this is 1933—that many movies would use as a brickbat with which to clobber any foreign-born supporting character who impugned these ideals. But Wellman is a forerunner of Sam Fuller in his eagerness to start shit and to defend the unpopular position. Thus, he happily turns Barthelmess's, Young's, and MacMahon's backs to the camera while Max drives home his anti-profit, anti-individualist points from the rear ground of the image, waving his finger at Tom and at us. The others, presented as fully likable people, chuckle at Max's intensity as he leaves, but as Ruth asks Mary what she'll wear that night when they head out to celebrate, dithering that Mary's blue crêpe dress is a lot snazzier than she gives it credit for, the specter of Max's anti-commodity vitriol still lingers as an indictment worth considering. So it's a little dispiriting when, amid the script's ambitions to confound our assumptions about everyone, Max becomes unexpectedly rich from a patent he co-develops with Tom and emerges as the most devoted money-hoarder and the snobbiest nouveau bourgeois of anyone on the scene. He is much less striking as an avatar of broadly-sketched hypocrisy than as a firebrand of ideas—especially ideas that Hollywood has historically disavowed, and has usually made sure that we disavow as well, filling our reserves of fantasy space with every gown and robot and romance it can throw at us, every abstracted villain with no ideology, no tie to our real lives, just a nuclear code or a black cobwoy hat.

The bevy and the earnestness of real-world arguments beneath the fleet, punchy, unpredictable drama of Heroes for Sale leads to a kind of accelerated rhythm and freewheeling structure that some viewers are bound to reject and others bound to embrace—reactions which will surely dictate their receptivity to the film as a whole. Wellman sometimes gets so excited about a viable idea (i.e., machines that are meant to ameliorate labor become the instruments of replacing or impoverishing human labor) that he spends the next five minutes of his movie agglomerating more instances of that problem. The analogies may or may not feel workable: e.g., police sirens are machines, too! And so are automated washing machines! And here is a close-up of a hand-cranked police siren, which you know will soon be replaced by a machine! And here's the work-hall of a prison, just brimming with machines! And remember World War I? Machine guns!

I like Wellman's avidness, partly because it's such a jolt to see a picture getting totally worked up about something it's got on its mind, and not foisting all of the editorial work on dialogue alone. I also think he is more of an open-ended ironist than a fast-and-loose debater. The truncated subplots or asymmetrical motifs or logjams of narrative incident that 20s- and 30s-era Wellman often favored strike me as deliberate prompts to thought, not as attempts to get away with specious thinking. For instance, the original New York Times review of Heroes for Sale (unlinkable, for some reason, but still available on the site) lamented why the film would commence on a low-budget battlefield reenactment, then spend 20 minutes setting up a tough but pitiable melodrama about difficult homefront returns, only to drop all of that and reboot, as it were, as a drama of class-based unrest and worker radicalization. But I see method in this madness of cramming two separate feature-scale plotlines into one 70-minute picture. On that battlefield, Tom, a working-class soldier, is shot and captured by the Germans during a particularly brave maneuver. His comrade Roger Winston (Gordon Westcott), a well-to-do scion in training, is so paralyzed with terror that he catalyzes Tom's misfortune, but also reaps a medal for bravery and a hero's welcome, when everyone thinks Tom is dead. The Times may not be alone in thinking this first act incongruous to the second and third, but as a sustained thread about the devices by which privilege often accrues more advantage to itself (even as its mettle is tested and found wanting), I see important continuities. Even better, after Heroes for Sale enacts the crude tactic of using a wronged and battle-scared war hero to conjure new sympathies for drug addicts, it tips its hand on an even nervier strategy: using the dignity and heroism we are quick to attribute to our military veterans as a cognitive bridge toward how we ought to perceive our exploited wage-workers and our bravest crusaders for economic justice. You don't have to agree with the position to see Wellman and his screenwriters making a lunge for this unusual and daring transference, and if you have mixed feelings about it, the movie doesn't ask you to unmix them.

Sometimes incidents or images capitalize a little too easily on jerry-rigged appeal. Tom, for instance, becomes a bit too entrenched in his late-born do-gooder persona to make some of the later narrative turns as interesting as they could be. He's never really disquieting, the way Paul Muni so profitably is in the contemporary I Am a Fugitie from a Chain Gang, although to be fair, their characters are clearly divergent. Still, it's hard to feel that a movie that ends with a toddler looking at a sculpted bust of his father and saying, "When I grow up, I want to be just like Dad" is doing everything in its power to avoid cheap devices. Maybe it's worth conceding, too, that six years into the sound era, Wellman is still filming calendar pages, discharge slips, door signs, and nameplates on safety deposit boxes to mark scene transitions—not just symptoms of a sluggish migration to new storytelling modes, but in fact a habit that already felt hoary to a lot of filmmakers and critics in the pre-sound era. Heroes for Sale, like the other Wellman pictures that got me excited about watching this one (Other Men's Women has a comparable beauty and toughness), can be a little self-consciously antiquated even as it chases its most present-tense thematics.

But even here, from an intellectual standpoint but also in the ways I experience his movies emotionally, I have zero trouble giving Wellman the benefit of the doubt. These dog-eared devices sure do save time, and what he loses in novel technique he reaps several times over in rhetorical and emotional immediacy. Plus, having established these placards as a visual leitmotif, he's brilliant at having fun with them. "This Is No Flop-House But You Can Take a Nap!" reads one sign in Mary's diner, as we're first exploring the space. "Have You Written Home To Your Mother?" reads another, and the camera poignantly tilts down to yet another forgotten man sitting right underneath, beavering away with pencil and paper, before an over-the-shoulder shot reveals him to be sketching a naked woman. Wellman's quaint but earnest devices, his big-hearted and big-biceped style, and his merging of old and new sensibilities give his movies flavor, spontaneity, and affective claim. His economy of means is genuinely economical: the concision with which we grasp that Mary is in love with Tom, but refuses to be jealous of Ruth, but keeps her fire burning anyway, just in case, is a model of fast, rounded, and moving dramaturgy, with no gum. Sometimes all you need is a woman, a dress, and a door that she opens, then closes, then opens again to tell us everything we need to know about a period in three people's lives. (Having Aline MacMahon on call to play that scene certainly helps.)

When Heroes for Sale prepares to enter a narrative chute in which one of its characters might play too easily as the romantic martyr, Wellman uses short scenes like Tom's creepy altercation with his barely-visible morphine pusher to cut the sugar with salt and starch. Having cast an actor like Loretta Young, so congenial and so limpidly beautifully that you can't help falling in love with her, Wellman angles and times her shots in relation to story and dialogue so that we feel the script's skepticisms about idealized domesticity as the only thing that movie folks, or American folks, are ever supposed to strive for. Through grammar and form, he can complicate our relation to the character without having to besmirch the performer or the person she's playing—the usual trick of less confident stylists and meaner spirits. The director also omits entire sequences in which equally thrill-seeking but lazier, more heartless filmmakers would revel—we see nothing of Tom's five years of detox and DT withdrawal, much less the usual nuthouse of day-players with the heebie-jeebies. That said, Heroes for Sale is hardly afraid to sock it to you when it wants to. When someone dies, violently, you feel it strongly. The camera isn't shy, though it also don't linger.

The cutting, the images, and the scoring are precisely in sync, then, with the movie's rhetorical messages about confronting systems, not getting absorbed in pathetic fallacies of character. But a lot of movies that adopt that philosophy feel positively astringent about character, and Wellman's don't. He loves them, and he works terrifically with actors like Barthelmess, a silent-cinema titan who had only sporadic success in talkies, but who acclimates perfectly to Wellman's double-barrel of dated and daring effects. Heroes for Sale attains a leaner, shorter, less clean-lined version of many of the artistic and rhetorical projects for which John Ford's Grapes of Wrath would become famous. That doesn't mean Heroes for Sale is a better movie. Given the durable appeal of Grapes, though, and the eager audience it perennially reveals, even among my students, for older movies that surprise us with their politics and intimidate us with their gut-punch forcefulness, I think Heroes is a movie more people should see, by a director more people should track, produced in an early-30s idiom that has more to show us than gangsters and sex-bombs. (No slight intended, obviously, against Jimmy Cagney or Barbara Stanwyck.)

To chart one final route into his appeal, Wellman is one of those directors I think people have in mind when they call Clint Eastwood's recent movies "old-fashioned" as a term of praise, to the point where they can sound blind to Eastwood's lapses and impervious to his detractors' objections. Heroes for Sale, in ways that viewers of a film like Million Dollar Baby will recognize, does indeed lean on some outmoded devices and on a few storytelling short-cuts to get us all the way to its haunting character truths, its bracing sense of mood and its restless spirit, and some intractable dilemmas: do you box and thereby court danger, or retire the gloves and collect your waitressing tips? Do you insist on justice or cash your paycheck? Do you choose your principles or your child? Both filmmakers keep even simple techniques in reserve until they really want to strike home with their bold simplicity. Thus, it's as exciting when Wellman's largely static camera suddenly tracks across a morale-boosted factory floor—and then as devastating when it tracks a second time through the same space, now totally depopulated—as it is exciting when Baby's Maggie Fitzgerald handles an entire offstage TKO inside of one, uncut zoom-out and -in. This kind of movie might be a missing link that makes Eastwood's non-converts see what's special and rare about his poetics, and yet the comparison does not entirely flatter him. One thing Eastwood increasingly does, and Wellman rarely did, is practice an alleged economy of means on such a grand scale that you wind up with a minor-key sonata that goes on and on in a major way, for 135 minutes. You could watch Heroes for Sale twice in the time it takes to watch Mystic River or Changeling or Invictus, coming away twice as charged and at least as intimate with the characters—and still without subjugating everything else in the film to your character sympathies. I think Wellman passes back and forth through the membrane separating public and private life more gracefully than Eastwood usually does, too. Heroes for Sale is not a perfect film, and not particularly interested in perfection, but really and truly, pretend this isn't a cliché: they don't make 'em like this anymore. Grade: B+

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