During World War I, Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) goes off to fight with his hometown friend Roger Winston (Gordon Westcott). At one point, Roger is supposed to undertake a risky maneuver to capture a German prisoner. When it comes time to go through with it, Roger is paralyzed with fear and Tom jumps in to finish the job. But then Tom is shot and Roger has to finish it himself. Roger believes Tom is dead and is given some very impressive accolades for his bravery. Even though Roger knows the truth, he doesn’t have it in him to tell the truth. Meanwhile, Tom is still alive and has been getting treatment in a German P.O.W. camp. After the war is over, Tom is released but is sent home with a bad morphine addiction. He runs into Roger on the boat home and Roger tells Tom how awful he feels about taking his awards, but Tom is surprisingly forgiving about it.
Once they get back home, Roger is given a hero’s welcome but makes sure that Tom is given a job at his father’s bank. However, Tom’s dependency on morphine proves to interfere with his work and Roger’s father fires him. Tom is sent to rehab and successfully beats his addiction, and once he is released, he moves to Chicago and things finally start to look up for him. He meets Ruth (Loretta Young), a woman who lives in the same building as him. She works at a laundry service and suggests that he try to get a job there, too. He starts out as a truck driver, but when his boss notices that he is the only driver bringing in new business, he is promoted. Not only is he now bringing in more money, but he marries Ruth and the two of them soon are expecting a baby.
All is going well until Tom and Ruth’s neighbor Max comes to him with a laundry machine idea, looking for money to get a patent for it. Tom helps Max get the money together and sells the machine to the laundry service he works at under the condition that nobody lose their job because of it. And at first, that’s great, but then the owner of the laundry service dies suddenly and it is taken over by new management who have no interest in abiding by that rule and 75% of the employees are fired, including Tom. The fired workers start a riot that kills Ruth, and even though Tom tries to stop them, he is sent to jail.
While in jail, Tom earns a fortune from his machine, but refuses to touch even one cent of it because he considers the money dirty. He’s released after five years and finds that he barely recognizes his own son anymore. He also finds out that he is a suspected communist and a group of anti-communist officers want to run him out of town. With no other option, Tom decides to leave town, but gives all his money to his friend Mary (Aline MacMahon), who has been taking care of his son and runs a restaurant with her father. He tells Mary to use the money to feed anybody who needs it free of charge and to take care of his son. Once Tom leaves town, he becomes one of the many homeless drifters and finds his old “friend” Roger among them. Roger’s father’s bank has closed and he had done some time in jail for illegal investing. The two of them remain hopeful that the New Deal will improve things for them, and back in Chicago, we find that Mary has made sure that Tom’s son knows what an honorable man his father is.
Heroes for Sale is one of the great hard-hitting social commentary type of pre-codes. That poster with Loretta Young in the slinky evening gown is pretty misleading. This is such a brutally honest movie that doesn’t try to gloss over anything in the slightest. Between the way it showed a blind veteran coming home after the war, drug addiction, and even the way Ruth died, there is absolutely nothing pretty about this movie. And Loretta Young’s character most certainly was not wearing any glamorous evening gowns like that. This is one of my favorite sound films by Richard Barthelmess, I thought he really hit it out of the park. And for how much stuff happens in this movie, it is amazing that director William Wellman was able to fit all of it in in a little over an hour. Don’t miss this movie!