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.
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.
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.
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!