Monday, September 28, 2009

A Precode Look at WWI

Heroes for Sale is nearly unrelenting in the intensity of pain that the character of Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) goes through.  A soldier in the first World War, who is severely wounded in an enemy action, he ends up addicted to morphine when his German doctor can only relieve his pain rather than remove the shrapnel in his body. He returns to America to find that his fellow soldier George (Grant Mitchell) has been given awards for bravery for leading the action in which Tom was injured, while George hid in a foxhole, paralyzed with fear.  George attempts to help his friend, as much out of fear of being revealed as anything else, until Tom's addiction becomes known, at which point Tom is fired from his bank job and put into a rehabilitation center.

Cured of his drug problem, Tom starts over, marries (Loretta Young as Ruth), becomes successful, only to have everything taken away from him yet again.  He loses his job, his wife, his son and finally ends up one of the depression homeless, primarily because he refuses to live upon the pain of his fellow man.
William Wellman never lets up in this story. Just when you think Tom will make it, something else happens to him.  Richard Barthelmess is wonderful as Tom. We felt for him at every moment.  He had had a remarkable career in silents, which continued into the 1930's, finally petering out (unfortunately) in the 1940's.  We had previously seen him in Only Angels Have Wings, and looked forward to seeing him in a lead role; he was not a disappointment. 

Unlike the previously discussed Midnight Mary,  Loretta Young plays an innocent girl in Heroes for Sale, someone who loves her husband and son with her whole heart.  Young is quite good in what is really a small part.
Besides Barthelmess, though, the other actor of real interest is Aline MacMahon as Mary Dennis.  Of particular note is a scene during which she realizes that Tom has feelings for Ruth. Watch her face - Aline MacMahon will break your heart.

Ms. MacMahon began her career in 1931, and continued working until 1975.  She had started on Broadway, appearing in The Madras House in 1921 - she would continue to work on the New York stage until 1975.  She spent her film career in supporting roles, like Trixie Lorraine in Gold Diggers of 1933 and Mrs. Murray in The Search.  Married once (from 1928 until her husband's death in 1975), she retired in after completing For the Use of the Hall.  She died in 1991, aged 92.  

Here's a scene with the always wonderful Aline MacMahon and Richard Barthelmess:



Next week, we conclude this particular precode set with Wild Boys of the Road.