I thought I had William Wellman’s Heroes for Sale pegged in its opening scenes, which are set during World War I. Soldier Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) is ordered by his superior and good friend (in both civilian life and the trenches) Roger Winston (Gordon Westcott) to accompany him, as well as a few other troops, on what appears to be a suicide mission: an assault on a German machine gun nest.
Tom and Roger are to lead the frontal assault, but once they crawl into no-man’s land, Roger chickens out and refuses to budge from the safety of their foxhole.
Left on his own, Tom moves forward, destroys the machine gun with a grenade, and even manages to take a German prisoner. Unfortunately, while returning to the foxhole, Tom is shot in the back. A wounded Tom tosses the prisoner in next to Roger, informs his friend that he’s a goner, and tells Roger to make sure the prisoner is delivered to their commanding officer.
Though ashamed of his cowardice, Roger is declared a hero. Roger knows it was his now-deceased friend who is the true hero, yet takes the credit for it anyway.
But, miracle of miracles, Tom is not dead! The bullet lodged in his back, he is taken prisoner by the German Army, who put him in a hospital tent, where his wound is treated. When, some time later, the armistice is signed, Tom is returned to the U.S. front lines. On a boat home, Tom meets Roger, who is surprised his pal is still alive, and confesses everything. No matter, says Tom, and tells Roger to continue playing the hero.
Back in their home town, Roger, son of a prestigious banker (Berton Churchill), is given a hero’s welcome, while Tom has a cozy but affectionate reunion with his widowed mother (Margaret Seddon). But Tom received more than a wound in the back during the war; the German doctor who treated him also informed Tom that there is still metal shrapnel very close to his spinal cord, and gave him a bottle of morphine to ease the pain. Now working in the very bank controlled by Roger and his father, Tom has developed a Morphine addiction, which is affecting his job performance. Though Roger pleads for his buddy once the addiction is made public, his father fires Tom and reports him to the authorities, who lock Tom away in an asylum for treatment.
This entire ordeal had me thinking about another film released that same year, Gold Diggers of 1933, specifically the musical number “Remember My Forgotten Man”, in which Joan Blondell relates the plight of the returning soldier, and how America seems to have forgotten their sacrifices. With its opening scenes, and a title like Heroes for Sale, I figured this is exactly the topic Wellman’s movie was going to tackle as well.
Boy, was I wrong!
This is not a movie about society ignoring veterans of World War I, or at least it's not entirely about that. Tom not only recovers from his morphine addiction, but also moves to Chicago and takes an apartment above a soup kitchen operated by Mary Dennis (Aline MacMahon) and her kindly father (Charles Grapewin, aka Dorothy’s Uncle Henry in 1939's The Wizard of Oz). Tom also meets and falls in love with fellow tenant Mary (Loretta Young), who gets Tom a job at the laundry service where she works.
Tom quickly becomes a star employee and moves up the ranks, even helping the laundry's owner Mr. Gibson (Grant Mitchell) automate his service using an invention developed by his neighbor Max (Robert Barrat), a self-proclaimed Communist sympathizer.
I don’t want to go any further into the film’s plot… I feel I may have revealed too much already. But rest assured that all of the above happens before the movie’s halfway point!
Heroes for Sale is, indeed, about veterans returning home, but it is also about capitalism and greed. It is about drug addiction, wrongful imprisonment, workers riots, the Red Scare (decades before McCarthy), and, eventually, the great depression. It is a movie about America, a glimpse at 14-15 years of a man’s life, and how a changing country affected him, both for the better and the worse. As Tom, the protagonist forced to endure all the turmoil, Richard Barthelmess delivers a strong performance. We feel his defeats, we cheer for his successes, and the actor’s work is a big reason why.
But the real stars of Heroes for Sale are director William Wellman and writers Robert Lord and William Mizner, who have seemingly done the impossible. They made a film that plays like a big-screen epic, a snapshot of American history every bit as grand as How the West Was Won or Saving Private Ryan, and squeezed it into a motion picture that runs for only 76 God-damn minutes!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10