Heroes for Sale (William Wellman / U.S., 1933):

From across the trenches to under a bridge between wars, the American Book of Job. William Wellman starts off with a blow and keeps on punching, his study of a suicidal charge amid No Man’s Land craters has the horror-paralyzed commander (Gordon Westcott) crowned hero while the stout doughboy (Richard Barthelmess) is left with shrapnel in his spine and an itchy morphine addiction. (The boat ride home offers a glimpse of James Murray, a sightless casualty who smilingly fingers the guilty leader’s medal.) Barthelmess quivering for a fix behind the bank teller’s barred window is a cogent poster for the plight of the returning soldier, but the plutocrat is unmoved: "Time to quit beating the drum and waving the flag!" At a seedy boarding house, the camera tilts down from a sign on the wall ("Have you written home to mother?") to a vagrant working on a saucy sketch; the protagonist is not impressed with the room shown him by the lovelorn landlady (Aline MacMahon) but changes his mind once he spots the lass next door (Loretta Young), surely a gag that tickled Nabokov. "When you get to be my age, you’ll have a bomb in each pocket," snaps the inventor (Robert Barrat) who’s got Marx’s Manifesto burning in his brain until he strikes it rich with a proletariat-gutting gadget. (A terse panning shot at the factory reveals a gargantuan mechanism where a roomful of laundresses used to be.) The tale of the fake socialist who turns absolute capitalist while the all-American boy sets up communes for fallen comrades and then finds himself in the middle of a homegrown Cossack raid -- not a gram of fat in Wellman’s crazy, urgent, ribald Depression pamphlet, about five or six social-protest tracts rolled into one. Shot at, clubbed, imprisoned and banished, Barthelmess is the entire battered populace forced to toe the edge of the precipice and instead choosing to gaze heavenwards with a shrug: "At least it stopped raining." With Berton Churchill, Grant Mitchell, Charley Grapewin, and Robert McWade. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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