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Heroes for Sale

Screening on Film
Directed by William Wellman.
With Richard Barthelmess, Aline MacMahon, Loretta Young.
US, 1933, 35mm, black & white, 73 min.
Print source: Warner Bros.

Wellman’s pre-Code letter to a Depressed America contains critiques of both Capitalism and Communism, yet ultimately points its finger at the inhumanity within all ideologies and systems. The director looks everyone directly in the eye with an empathetic and cynical scrutiny. Remarkable for Hollywood at this time, the film fails to denounce the drug addict and even casts a compassionate eye on the human in a Nazi uniform. When Richard Barthelmess’ wartime hero Tom is left for dead on the battlefield, his heroic efforts are claimed by another man, who then forsakes him once Tom develops an addiction to the morphine he is prescribed for chronic pain. The portrait of egoless, kind perseverance, Tom finds love, success and friends—including Aline MacMahon’s steadfast Mary, who is his unglamorous female counterpart—yet cannot compete with larger forces: the desperate masses and the Machine Age. Peppered with actual hoboes and laborers, Wellman’s endeavor is as earnest and heartfelt as the causes of his protagonist. With echoes of “My Forgotten Man” in Gold Diggers of 1933, the film may end with a message direct from FDR—apparently a studio directive—but Wellman has the final, wry word.

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