Wednesday, September 02, 2009


During WWI, officer Gordon Westcott freaks out as he's leading his men on a near-suicidal mission. Soldier Richard Barthelmess takes charge and snags an important prisoner, but is shot on the battlefield and assumed dead; Westcott takes the prisoner back to much acclaim and is too befuddled to tell the truth about what happened. However, Barthelmess, captured by the Germans, survives, though he becomes a morphine addict due to pain from his injuries. Back in the States, the two men see each other and, despite the hero's welcome that Westcott got, Barthelmess claims no hard feelings. The rest of the movie covers Barthelmess' post-war travails: Westcott gets him a job at his family's bank, but because of his addiction, he messes up at work and winds up committed to the State Narcotic Farm. He's released six months later, his mom dies, and he spends time at a "poor man's club" where he falls in with kind-hearted owner Aline MacMahon and eccentric communist Robert Barrat, and begins romancing Loretta Young. When he gets a job as a laundry deliveryman, his ambitious ways help him move up in the company, and soon he teams up with Barrat to market a new washing machine which works wonders and makes him and Barrat (who is now a fully committed capitalist) rich but leads to workers losing their jobs. There is labor-related mob violence, a death, prison time, and near the end, we see Barthelmess riding the rails and meeting up with Westcott, whose bank has closed down.

This movie, as most critics point out, seems like it covers practically every American social issue from WWI through the Depression. Though Barrat, the only card-carrying Communist in the movie, is made to seem ridiculous, the film does embrace a Socialist ethos. After the opening war scenes, it rarely feels "real," with Barthelmess coming off as a kind of Everyman figure caught up in a Depression-era fable. Taking that into account, this is still a solidly entertaining pre-Code film with interesting camerawork (lots of fluid panning shots) under the direction of William Wellman, and good performances by Young, MacMahon, Westcott, and Barrat (though I did tire of his constant tongue-clucking sound). Barthelmess is a bit wooden as usual but OK, and the supporting cast includes Grant Mitchell, Charley Grapewin, and Ward Bond. [TCM]

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