Remembering the Forgotten: A Look at WW1 through the Lens of Pre-Code Hollywood

heroes for sale

By Heather Babcock

“Pain. Agony. Continual torture. Day after day, like a million ants eating me alive. Do you know what that means? No, you don’t. Because when I was being blown to bits, you were sitting here safe and comfortable. And you’re still sitting here in judgement.” – Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess), Heroes for Sale (1933)

Remembrance Day is not about “glorifying war”. November 11th is not about the men, safe in their power, who created the wars. Rather, Remembrance Day is about the men and women who left their homes and their families to sacrifice – sometimes their lives – for us: for the freedoms we can choose to take for granted today. November 11th is about the Veterans who are not here to tell their stories. It is about the Veterans who thankfully are still here to tell their stories. And it is about those who cannot or could not tell their stories because they are/were too painful to verbalize.

Sound motion pictures (“talkies”) were introduced to the public about nine years after the end of World War One. Many of the top directors of early sound films – such as Busby Berkeley, James Whale and William A. Wellman – were WW1 veterans. War films made during this period, while in no means shying away from the death and destruction of the battlefield, are not gory as the war films that would be made in later decades. War films released during Hollywood’s Pre-Code period focus more on the mental, emotional and financial struggles that the WW1 veterans faced after coming home. Perhaps the directors – who may have experienced PTSD themselves – did not want to exploit the real-life horrors and violence they had faced for an audience’s entertainment.  While modern war films focus on battlefield action, Pre-Code war movies focus on humanity and loss.

In the 1933 film Heroes for Sale, Richard Bartelmess plays Tom Holmes, a WW1 soldier whose heroic act on the battlefield is rewarded not with a medal but with a morphine addiction. He gets a job at a bank and attempts to hide his addiction but his drug dealer keeps pushing up the price. Desperate, Tom goes to see his doctor. The doctor refuses to prescribe the drug and instead calls Tom’s boss at the bank, who promptly fires him. “You fellows forget the war is over,” the smug banker chastises Tom. “Time to quit beating the drum and waving the flag.” This scene is interesting for a couple of reasons: as is often the case in Warner Brothers’ Pre-Code films, the banker is presented as sinister and downright evil, which makes a lot of sense in a film that was released about three and a half years after the stock market crash, but even more importantly this scene gives flesh to the feelings of ingratitude and dismissiveness that some WW1 vets were feeling upon returning home. In the groundbreaking 1932 movie I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, WW1 vet James Allen (the wonderful Paul Muni) exclaims in frustration: “No one seems to realize that I’ve changed – that I’m different now! I’ve been through hell! Folks here are concerned with my uniform and how I dance. I’m out of step with everybody.”

In his 1931 book Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s, author Frederick Lewis Allen describes a 1919 Life magazine cartoon in which a personification of Uncle Sam says to a WW1 vet “Nothing is too good for you, my boy! What would you like?” to which the soldier replies “A job.” About fourteen years later, Joan Blondell and Etta Moten Barnett performed the boot stomping finale “Remember My Forgotten Man” in the movie Gold Diggers of 1933. Blondell speaks the song’s opening lyrics:

“Remember my forgotten man? You put a rifle in his hand. You sent him far away, you shouted ‘hip, hooray!’ But look at him today.” (Lyrics by Warren and Dubin)

The elaborate number, choreographed by WW1 vet Busby Berkeley, begins with the forgotten women: the war widows, grieving mothers and the girls whose dreams of home and marriage were ripped away in what is now considered one of the bloodiest and deadliest wars in history with an estimated 37 million lives lost. “Forgetting him means you’re forgetting me,” Blondell sighs, as she wanders the streets looking for a trick. The number then shifts from the women to the men. We see proud men marching off to war in crisp uniforms. Girls throw flowers and toss kisses at them. Blankets of ticker tape and confetti seem to fall from the sky. But new soldiers come to join the parade: these men are bloody and bandaged; some carry dead, broken bodies on their backs. No one cheers these men on for the crowd has long disappeared.  Next, the battlefield transforms into a breadline and young men shiver in the cold as they wait in line for a stale sandwich and a cup of watered down coffee. “We are the real forgotten men,” the soldiers sing. “Who have to lead this life again. We sauntered forth to fight, for glory was our pride but somehow glory died.”

Busby based the number on the Bonus Army of 1932. During one of the bleakest years of the Great Depression, an estimated 15,000 WW1 veterans, out of work and hungry, made their way to the nation’s capital to demand payment of their bonus for serving in the war. They called themselves the “Bonus Expeditionary Force” and set up camp and ramshackle tents throughout Washington, D.C. Their pleas fell on deaf ears though when on June 17 the Senate voted against the House-passed bill that would have given WW1 vets immediate payment of their bonus. With no money and no place to go, the soldiers remained in their man-made camps. On July 28th, 1932 President Hoover ordered the Army to forcibly remove the veterans, along with their wives and children, using a violent force of tanks and cavalry with fixed bayonets and tear gas. Afterwards, the government set the veteran’s make-shift homes on fire.

Public sentiment was largely on the side of the WW1 soldiers: it didn’t matter which political party one followed, nobody – Republican, Democrat or independent – thought it was okay for the government to be gassing American war vets on the White House lawn.

Incidentally, Gold Diggers of 1933 was shot during the same time as Heroes for Sale. Both films are examples of the grit and perseverance of the people who lived through the Great Depression: “It takes more than one sock in the jaw to lick 120 million people,” Tom says at the end of Heroes for Sale, as he shivers in the rain in a Hooverville (an early 1930s term for a homeless camp). People in the 1930s may have been beaten down but they were looking up.

Canadian artist F.H. Varley’s 1918 painting “For What?” depicts a scene from WW1. Although a barrel of folded up corpses is in the painting’s foreground, this is not what immediately captures the eye. Instead we first notice the men in the background: one planting white crosses as another digs graves. Heavy clouds roll above them. This haunting painting is the strongest representation of PTSD (at the time referred to as “shell shock”) that I have ever seen.

On November 11th, we will remember the ones who died and the ones who were left behind to “lead this life again”; the decorated and the forgotten.

We will honor them as these films honored them: by remembering the horrors that they tried so hard to forget.

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