Heroes For Sale (1933)

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We Didn’t Start the Fire

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The amount of subject matter and themes present in Heroes For Sale could create a verse in We Didn’t Start the Fire; morphine addiction, the great depression, unemployment, disgruntled vets, capitalism, communism, police brutality, automation, mob mentality, false imprisonment, stolen valour, rock n’ roll and cola wars, I can’t take it anymore! All packed within 71 minutes (well minus those last two I just mentioned). I find the sheer volume of topics the movie covers to be its weakness, many of the issues are only covered on a base level and doesn’t massively go into depth with them rather than focusing on a single topic. – Think of the movie as “Issues Facing American Society During the Great Depression 101”.

Heroes For Sale is an emotionally engaging film regardless of its constant shift in theme. Richard Barthelmess seems to have been made for heavy hitting dramas with that face and voice of his. In the role of Thomas Holmes he plays a character whom gets screwed over again and again; not being rewarded or ultimately losing his rewards either by bad luck or at the hands of a broken system. According to the details of a state narcotic farm card, Holmes is 25 in 1921 of which Barthelmess is defiantly not (yet despite being clearly too old for the role the ageing makeup in use is very effective).

At the beginning of the film, Holmes captures a German soldier in battle only to be shot and be captured by the German’s while his cowardly friend is mistakenly glorified and given a Medal of Honour for Thomas’ brave deed. Only a few minutes Heroes For Sale is comprised of a WWI battle, but any self-respecting war movie would jealous to have a sequence looking this good and real showcase of William Wellman’s skills as a director.

The film’s comic relief comes in the form of Max Brinker (Robert Barrat), a crazy caricature of a communist. They say communism fails to breed innovation due to the lack of an incentive yet Max is an inventor always hammering away in his room. Once he invents a machine which makes washing and drying clothes easier he happily becomes rich of it; reaping the rewards of your own invention rather than the state owning it. After this he dresses and acts like what would be a caricature of a capitalist seen in Communist propaganda, wearing a tux and top hat while despising the poor (*clicking tongues).

The fear of automation is present during the later portion of Heroes for Sale, the one aspect of the film which hits right at home as I write this review in 2018 in which major companies are automating their services. At the same time, however, does the fact that Heroes for Sale shows this fear existed in the 1930’s not prove that it is an unfounded one, that the market will adapt and life will go on? Holmes pitches the automated washing device invented by his friend Max to the head of a cleaning company under the pretence that it must not be used to throw anyone out of work or cut salaries but rather to increase production, makes jobs easier and make employees working hours shorter. Of course, the evil businessmen go back on their word and automate the entire process and throwing their employees out of work in which the newly found Luddites start rioting in the street. Tom himself is even taken over by guilt over the invention he promoted which resulted in job losses and uses his royalties to help the poor. Well not until he’s run out of town under accusations of being a communist (guy can’t catch a break).

It’s hard to really determine a political message emitting from Heroes for Sale that lands on either side of the political spectrum, even if it does conclude on an optimistic note with a final speech from Holmes about America and FDR’s inaugural address (whether the New Deal was counterproductive or not but that a whole other can of worms). It provides an interesting contrast to the more ominous final words given by Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. Both films end with a titular Tom vanishing into the dark of night promising to do good in some form or another.

“It may be the end of us, but it’s not the end of America.”

Captain Blood (1935)

There Will Be Blood

Captain Blood, the one that started it all – the breakthrough roles for Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland and the first of their eight films together. The picture which saw the first of eleven films Flynn would make with director Michael Curtiz and the movie which helped establish Erich Wolfgang Korngold as one of Hollywood’s greatest composers. Captain Blood ushered in a new era for the swashbuckler, a genre which was huge in the 1920s but became practically non-existent during the pre-code era.

Talk about a great start for two careers; two unknown actors being cast in a major production at one of Hollywood’s biggest studios. Should Hollywood have taken risks like this more often or was Captain Blood just one freakishly lucky gamble? With his long hair and muscular physique I don’t think Errol Flynn has ever appeared more attractive than he was in Captain Blood; he certainly never looked this beat up than he did in any of his subsequent movies. Reportedly during production scenes had to be reshot as Flynn’s acting had improved so dramatically over time. The man is a far better actor than he’s given credit for and perhaps the only other man in Hollywood who could rival Clark Gable in terms of pure swagger (just look at his ability to manipulate those two foolish doctors into assisting him into escaping from the island). The scenes between Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland are pure movie magic. When they’re in isolation it’s like they’re suddenly in a whole world of their own – it’s truly phenomenal chemistry. De Havilland was only 19 during the filming of Captain Blood, and it never ceases to amaze me I watch her in a film and knowing that she is still with us as of writing this review. Likewise, it is worth the 70-minute wait until Basil Rathbone finally enters the picture as the larger-than-life, French playboy Captain Levasseur.

In contrast to MGM’s Mutiny On The Bounty from the same year, Captain Blood does suffer slightly from being a more studio-bound product with no location filming (with the exception of the swordfight between Blood and Levasseur) or the aid of a life-size ship recreation. It’s also odd that the film is quite reliant on inter-titles to progress the plot, a silent-era holdover which still made it to 1935. Regardless, under the direction of Curtiz, the topical, palm tree-laden sets do come to life.

Dr Peter Blood reflects Flynn’s real-life personality if the man’s biographical tales are anything to go by – a free spirit who “has had enough adventure for 6 years to last him 6 lifetimes”. The plot of Captain Blood is a surprisingly empowering tale of defiance against corrupt and unjust authority. Blood is a doctor whom after following his sacred duty as a physician and giving medical aid to a wounded rebel during the Monmouth Rebellion in England circa 1685, is sentenced to slavery in a Caribbean colony and denied even the right to a fair trial. Captain Blood, however, is not your typical pirate picture. Blood and his band of escaped convicts do not bare eye patches, peg legs or utter “shiver me timbers”. They are not bloodthirsty pirates and do uphold moral convictions such as disdain the molestation of women (their articles forbid such action). Blood is not too dissimilar to Robin Hood and his Merry Men, they are not revolutionaries but rather outlaws who want to see the rightful king returned to the throne of England.