Heroes for Sale (1933)

Samuel Wilson at Mondo 70 makes a case for Midnight Mary being “in some ways a distaff version” of this film rather than the more obviously similar Frisco Jenny. It’s an interesting idea but I don’t buy it (even if Loretta Young is in both films); what it actually reminded me of a lot more was I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. We start in the trenches of WW1, Tom Holmes gets caught by Germans during a raid; Tom’s friend returns home with decorations and promotion while Tom returns with a morphine habit. And even when he hauls himself back to success, fate obviously has to deliver further kicks in the teeth. As Hal Astell notes, the film is chock full of stuff—including a really surprising bit where we see someone doodling a bit of erotic art—to the point where it seems to be trying to work all the ills of the day into the script however it can. The nobility and goodness of Tom in the face of all this is not always easy to swallow, and if the role were filled by a lesser actor than Richard Barthelmess he’d probably be too much to accept, but Barthelmess manages to convince somehow. The film’s political position is an interesting one to work out, with one of the bigger secondary characters being the communist inventor Max; he’s played as a fruity foreign absurdity and the film happily exposes him as a hypocrite when he ditches his principles in favour of lots and lots of money. And yet the film has even less sympathy with the forces maintaining the status quo, with the later scenes of the “red squad” busts ominously hinting at the creeping fascism of the period. The studio-imposed vaguely uplifting ending is not as bleak as that of Chain Gang and isn’t wholly convincing after everything we’ve seen, but on the whole this is the best film in the set so far. Let’s see how the last film in the box stacks up…

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