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Honest Plush Brannon is a con-man thrown out of the Barbary Coast in San Francisco in the 1880s and headed for the gold rush region of Nevada. He discovers a real mine which lead to several complications.
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The saga of Tom Holmes - a man of principles - from the Great War to the Great Depression. Will he ever get a break? His war heroics earn fame and a medal for someone else, and his wounds result in a morpheme addiction that costs him a job, his reputation in his home town, and months in a clinic. He goes to Chicago, where he's enterprising and dedicated to his work and his fellow workers, but an invention he champions results in the opposite of his intentions, leading to loss of life and an unjust imprisonment. After release, during the Depression, he must face local "red squads" and vigilante groups jousting out jobless men. Will anyone see his true heroic character? Written by
The screenplay may meander, but it wanders into territory that would remain untouched for years courtesy the straitjacketing Production Code of 1934. Consider the outspoken communist Max Brinker railing against the plundering rich. Sure, the screenplay eventually capitulates by showing him up as a rank opportunist utterly devoted to wealth when he gets the chance. But for a few minutes the communist is actually a somewhat sympathetic character. Then too, maybe main character Tommy Holmes should have listened to some of those railings. That way he would have known that while he might strike an altruistic deal with one capitalist (laundry owner Gibson), another will break it as soon as he sees a competitive advantage in doing so. Thus innovative machines come to replace human labor in the laundry, and more people join the unemployment lines. Not exactly a standard plot development for post-1934 Hollywood.
Then there's the Red Squad, sort of the thought-police of the time, usually off-duty cops paid by local business interests to hound union organizers and other troublemakers out of town. The movie makes clear that the two squad members who confront Holmes will use force unless he complies, which he meekly does. Still and all, how many Americans even know that such extra-legal groups as Red Squads operated during the Depression, while authorities looked the proverbial other way. Then too, isn't it odd how tissue-thin free speech becomes when it directly challenges the prerogatives of wealth and power, as union organizing especially did. The vigilantes at the movie's end are somewhat similar, except their motives are less political. Instead, they were generally civilians from the community kicking the footloose unemployed down the road because their own town is too ravaged to help. Maybe that's not charitable, but it is understandable.
Speaking of charity, the final few scenes illustrate the importance of government action in the face of increasing hunger and joblessness. Sure, Holmes proves himself something of a secular saint in using his wealth to feed the hungry. But what happens to those same needy if he suddenly changes his mind, dies, or goes broke. To me, this shows the limitations of voluntary giving as a societal solution, praiseworthy as giving may be. No, something like broad-based government action is needed when there's a breakdown in the economy itself. Whatever the screenplay's real deficiencies in treating these issues, they are at least raised. And just as tellingly, these same highly charged topics would for all practical purposes disappear from movie screens for the next several decades.
The movie itself has a number of noteworthy scenes. Wellman's filming of the unemployment riot is both vigorous and persuasive, as is the battlefield scene with its hellish terrain separating the German and American sides. As a director and veteran of WWI, Wellman's clearly at home with such subjects. I like the way the screenplay prepares us for Holmes' extraordinarily humane behavior by having him first experience great pain and then drug addiction stemming from a war wound. In the process, he learns the personal value of charity and mercy. It's also gutsy, I think, to show him rescued and pulled back from death by a German field hospital and the German branch of the Red Cross. Hollywood seldom affords the enemy such magnanimous gestures as it does here.
Also, consider how Holmes the returning vet is left essentially to manage as best he can with a war wound and a morphine addiction. Apparently there was no program at the time to help vets return successfully to civilian life, much as vets of the Iraq war were left to deal unaided with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and Vietnam vets with the effects of Agent Orange. Then too, the screenplay makes Holmes' plight especially ironic since he's the true war hero, and not the fair-haired Roger Winston. Yet because of the fog of battle, it's the cowardly Winston who's awarded officer's rank and mistaken for a hero, while Holmes is left to struggle alone and unrecognized. Thus, the whole idea of heroism amid the fog of war is portrayed as more problematic than generally thought.
The movie itself benefits from Barthelmess' understated performance as the pivotal Holmes. His character comes across as something of an everyman, such that his humane potential thereby becomes everyman's potential. Also, Gordon Westcott as the weakling Winston manages to add an unexpectedly sympathetic touch to a basically unsympathetic role. But I especially like Aline MacMahon as the lovelorn Mary. Watch how subtly she conveys her unrequited affection from the moment she first meets Holmes. It's a rather poignant performance suggesting the plight of the plain-faced woman in a culture that especially prizes feminine beauty.
Thanks are owed to TCM for reviving these "forbidden" films from the pre-code era. I've been a fan of the late show in big market LA for 40 years, and I don't recall any of the movies being shown on commercial channels during that period. To me, this suggests that the films were either too titillating or too political to get a commercial airing. And by the time the lid did come off in the 70's, they had been assigned to the movie dustbin and forgotten. But as Heroes shows, films from this grievously neglected period were willing to take on difficult and controversial topics. And just as importantly, the topics here are ones that remain as relevant now as they were then.
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