Monday, June 21, 2010

Journalism vs. Narrative

Heroes for Sale (1933) is more important to American history today than to cinema history. It began filming just before FDR's inauguration and concluded at the end of the first month. It is packed with ideas and controversies of the day, including morphine addiction, class, automation, capital vs. labor, communism and the Bonus Army, in the ripped-from-the-headlines mode of Warner Bros under production chief Darryl Zanuck.

The hero, played by D.W. Griffith repertory company member Richard Barthelmess, in one of his few successful performances in a leading role in a talking picture. As is often surprising for silent film stars, his manner and style are a bit stagy, but his sincerity wins over anything. Still, one has to accept a father who abandons his adopted son in order to tramp around the country being a fugitive/philanthropist. Makes sense from the studio that brought you the harrowing I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang.

Makes sense for a script co-written by sometime con man, journalist and adventure Wilson Mizner. Direction is by William Wellman, so you can count on speed--so much speed that a lot of story tropes are dropped before they're done in order to pick up a new thread--rain, and male camaraderie. The hero and the man who wronged him meet in a muddy shelter under a bridge (which resembles a foxhole), and acknowledge that, as former comrades-in-arms, they must reconcile, even though it does them no good, since the sheriff is ready to run them out of town anyway.

As for the Communist who turns into an oppressive exploiter--is that a comment about Communists, about capitalism, or is he just a convenient story catalyst?

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