Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Heroes For Sale (1933)

A few years ago, Warner Bros. Home Video began releasing DVD box sets titled Forbidden Hollywood, excellent collections highlighting several classic and rarely seen films of the pre-Code Hollywood era (from both Warner. Bros. and MGM). From 1930-1934, before Hollywood began enforcing a self-imposed Production Code, many films allowed for extraordinary frankness including nudity, adultery, prostitution, drug addiction, and what some say was the glamorization of characters with no redeeming social value without punishment.

While watching the recently released third volume of Forbidden Hollywood (a collection of pre-Code films directed by the legendary William Wellman), I was happily surprised to see the words Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Honesdale appear on the screen during a travel sequence in the film.

Heroes For Sale, starring Richard Barthelmess, Loretta Young, Gordon Westcott and Robert Barrat, was one of the first Hollywood films to deal head-on with the horrors of The Great Depression, and the overall theme of the film is that an honest man will always lose out in favor of a corrupt one.

Beginning in World War I, Heroes For Sale tells the tale of brave soldier Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess), who is captured by the enemy during battle when his Sergeant Roger Winston (Gordon Westcott) turns "yellow" and hides in a ditch. The coward Roger"earns" a medal of honor for bravery for turning in the enemy that Tom actually captured during gunfire, while Tom (now a POW) is badly hurt and is given heavy does of morphine by his captors.

Back at home, the drug-addicted Tom is working at a bank owned by the father of Roger, his former Sergeant. Though his work suffers, Tom remains honest and even refuses the temptation to steal from the bank to support his expensive habit. However, when called before the boss, Tom admits what really happened during wartime and that the medal Roger "earned" is rightfully his. To save face with his father, Roger calls Tom an insane drug addict and Tom is committed to an insane asylum to cure him of his addiction.

When released, a drug-free Tom moves to Chicago to start over. After getting a room at a boardinghouse above a restaurant, hegets a job as a salesman for a local laundry, where his honest dealings with his customers earn him a promotion. He also falls in love with his co-worker Ruth (Loretta Young), and they get married and have a son.

Also living in the boardinghouse is "crazy Red" Max (Robert Barrat), who believes in socialism, who yet becomes a tried-and-true Capitalist when his new invention is purchased for the laundry where Tom is now manager. The invention makes Max rich, but it also leads to mass layoffs, including one for Tom, at the laundry.

Tom is unwillingly carried off with the crowds of the now unemployed workers of the laundry. A riot break out, Tom's wife Ruth is killed in the stampede, and Tom is arrested and sentenced to five years in prison.

While Tom is in prison, Max's laundry invention becomes a standard across the country and Tom, an original investor, sees his bank account greatly expand while imprisoned. However, when he is finally released, the country is in the midst of the Great Depression. Tom donates all of his earnings on the invention to the restaurant (now a soup kitchen) below the boardinghouse where he once lived. However, the local police (and, ironically, Max the "crazy Red") accuse Tom of being a troublemaking Communist and run him out of town.

A map onscreen depicts Tom's (now a hobo) journey across the US to find work. As the map pans to Pennsylvania and Tom's destination of Harrisburg, the locations of Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Honesdale are featured prominently on the screen.

The film concludes with Tom continuing his search for work, but now his fellow traveller is Roger, whose father's bank collapsed with the Stock Market Crash of 1929--leaving Roger a hobo himself.

Sadly, the existing version of Heroes For Sale is five minutes shorter than its original release version from 1933; the reason being that many pre-Code films--even those that were originally released with zero cuts--were required to make cuts to the films when they were eventually rereleased in theaters, and the 71 minute cut (as opposed to the 76 minute version) is all that exists today.

Unfortunately the Lackawanna County Library System does not have Heroes for Sale on DVD; if you'd like to see it, feel free to make a purchase request for Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 3 by clicking here. However, the library does have the first volume of Forbidden Hollywood (featuring Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman, Mae Clarke in Waterloo Bridge, and Barbara Stanwyck in the shocking-even-by-today's-standards Baby Face); to place a hold, click here.

To purchase Forbidden Hollywood: Volume Three, click here.

On an interesting side note, Wellman also directed 1945's Lady of Burlesque, which also features a reference to Wilkes-Barre.

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