The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear

Heroes For Sale – Your Excuse To Keep Watching Movies!


If I were looking for a justification to prove that watching endless hours of movies is not just mindless entertainment, I would offer William Wellman’s Heroes For Sale for your consideration.

A few weeks ago, I was deeply involved in watching Ken Burns’ magisterial The Roosevelts: An Intimate Portrait. The personal glories and demons of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor are depicted against the backdrop of both World Wars and the Depression.  Using the three biographies as the thread linking the whole enterprise together, Burns effortlessly explains what America was like in the first half of the 20th Century.

Some days after The Roosevelts concluded, TCM showed William Wellman’s Heroes For Sale as part of its Friday Night Spotlight series on Pre-Code films.

heroes for sale

The resonance with the Burns documentary was profound. What was powerful in The Roosevelts was the long view of the subject which only comes from being created some 50 years after the events depicted.  Comparisons could be made regarding America’s involvement in the Spanish-American war and World Wars I and II because of this long view.  The contrasts in the approaches to progressive legislation by Teddy and FDR could only be drawn with a historical perspective.

Heroes For Sale, while not a documentary, offers a history lesson of a different kind.  Made in 1933, when the Depression was in one of its darkest periods, it tells the story of a World War I vet struggling to survive in the world of the Depression. He first has to overcome a morphine addiction which was a result of treatment in a German POW camp. The way our poor hero is kicked aside by the society that gives lip-service to the honor due veterans could have been written today. The fact that we are getting this in a film probably being watched by these same veterans it deals with,  gives it an immediacy that a documentary cannot capture.

The addiction licked, he moves from his small town to Chicago, where he finds comfort in Aline MacMahon’s coffee shop/soup kitchen/boarding house, as well as love with Loretta Young.  The charitable Aline and her dad give away as much as they sell in their restaurant and the breadline outside their shop becomes all the more poignant when you realize that the moviegoers of the time would probably see something similar when they left the theater and walked home.

heroes for sale

In the Roosevelt documentary, Capitalism and Communism are shown in contention for the American soul during the Depression, with the progressive Liberalism of FDR’s New Deal winning out.  In Heroes For Sale the two extremes are shown by the small-town bank owner who eventually commits suicide when it is found that he has been cheating his trusting depositors (sound familiar?) and by the mad inventor who lives in the boarding house who spouts Marx and revolution until he becomes wealthy and the struggle of the working man becomes irrelevant to him. Both philosophies have their drawbacks and ultimately fail the nation.

Richard Barthelmess, our hero, is the embodiment of the idealism of the New Deal, he keeps getting knocked down, but picks himself up and moves on, leaving goodness and kindness in his wake.


heroes for sale 2

The history lessons to be gleaned from watching this film are many. Not necessarily better than a documentary made today, but perhaps more thrilling since it is of the time itself.

I would love to hear your thoughts about film as history,  especially in light of recent rumors that Herbert Langer’s The History of Cinema, The Cinema of History might be republished sometime next year after an absence of over 40 years!




5 thoughts on “Heroes For Sale – Your Excuse To Keep Watching Movies!

  1. Good post! I haven’t seen either the Burns Roosevelt series or Heroes for Sale, but feel as though I should, and can certainly see the value in considering each through the lens of the other.

    While I haven’t seen Heroes, I DO remember the “Forgotten Man” number from The Gold Diggers of 1933, which commented (in an extremely stylized fashion, of course) on events that I believe were not quite a year in the past at the time of the film’s release. These days it seems like the only films on a production schedule that fast are indie films that have inbuilt limitations on their potential audiences, and therefore limited capacity to prompt or shape a national conversation. (Spike Lee comes to mind as somebody who’ll do this, shooting Ground Zero for 2002’s 25th Hour, for instance.) Then again, what constitutes “popular culture” is a much wider and shallower pool today than it was in 1933, so it’s not just the logistics of film production and distribution that are at fault.

    It’s interesting to think about the different strengths and advantages that accrue from approaching a subject or a historical episode through fiction versus documentary. This is something that’s been coming up in a lot of the Q&As that Kathleen has done for O, Democracy!: the notion of fiction as not so much a made-up (i.e. untrue) narrative as a narrative that asks the audience to set aside its concerns about what is and isn’t factual in order to empathize with the circumstances being depicted. As you suggest, both approaches tell us a lot, and they tell us even more when considered together.

  2. I recommend both highly. They should be readily available. Yes, that ‘Forgotten Man’ number is dazzling in so many ways. First of all the song just kills as does Joan Blondell. What I always find so chilling, though, is the final line that says : ‘Forgetting him, you see, means you’re forgetting me’. Suddenly we going from a song by a loyal wifey lamenting the ill-treatment of her man to a cry of anguish of a whole country about to go down the drain. Amazing stuff.

    We’re having similar discussions in our book group as we are now in the 6th volume of Proust. Of course, the lazy way to read the whole thing is as a Roman a Clef, but who really cares about that. The fascinating thing we are finding is that Proust does the fiction vs. fact thing with his first person narrator in a fascinating way – the character is being written in first person speaking in the time the action is happening, even though we know that the narrator is a creation of the hyper-narrator who is writing some 20 years after the action. And then there is the layer of Proust writing the whole thing. Layers of fictionalizing and truth all packed into one asthmatic, neurotic character. Quite a magnificent tour de force.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. Speaking of pre-code Hollywood Mitchell, did you see James Whale’s 1931 version of Waterloo Bridge with Mae Clarke? I thought it was superior to the 1940 version.

  4. I’m with you 100% on Waterloo Bridge. The Whale version is so artful and gritty. I also love his 1936 Show Boat. I don’t know another movie musical like it. Vastly superior to the later MGM, which always seems so elephantine to me

  5. Pingback: The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen | The Discreet Bourgeois

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