Warner Archive Review: G.W. Pabst’s ‘A Modern Hero’

G.W. Pabst did not have good timing. By 1934, his Weimar contemporaries had either already gone to Hollywood or, in the tragic case of F.W. Murnau, died. When the Nazis came to power, Pabst first tried to make films in France and then the U.K. Eventually, he landed in Hollywood, where he signed a deal with Warner Bros. After journeying to the other side of the world, Pabst only finished one movie, 1934’s A Modern Hero, which Warner Archive finally released on DVD last month.

During the silent era, Pabst was focused on stories about women, starring the likes of Greta Garbo and Leni Riefenstahl. The most famous films he ever made – Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl – both starred American Louise Brooks. But his talking films became obsessed with messages, and that includes A Modern Hero, a tale of one man’s rapid rise in American society and his even more sudden fall.

a modern hero richard barthemless

Based on a book by Louis Bromfield (the Pulitzer Prize winner for 1924’s Early Autumn), the movie tells the story of Pierre Radier (Richard Barthemless) over a period of decades, jammed into just 71 minutes. At the start, Pierre is a horse trick rider in a French circus performing in a small Illinois town. He falls in love with local Joanna Ryan (Jean Muir), who becomes pregnant. Rather than go along with Pierre, she chooses to marry a local man, who knows the baby is not his.

Frustrated with the circus life, he and a friend open a bicycle shop, which puts him on the corporate ladder. As he makes his ascent, he alienates people he loved, falls in love with wealthy women and eventually becomes an American citizen. And this is where it all starts to fall apart in a dizzying final 10 minutes. Everything that can go wrong for Pierre does, from losing all his money to his son suddenly dying in a car crash.

At first glance, it looks like there are no heroes in this film, but perhaps that’s the point. In a society obsessed with capitalism and wealth, we glorify those with money. But as always, money corrupts the modern hero. It kills Pierre’s soul and leaves him alone, with only the unconditional love of his mother (Marjorie Rambeau) to comfort him.

A Modern Hero is not a great film. It moves way too fast, turning some of the secondary characters into flat caricatures who seem to only exist to push Pierre into more pain. Pierre is never a likeable character from the beginning. He rebels against his mother, then impregnates a girl and ditches her, all in the first minutes of the movie.

Richard Barthemless’ performance turns him into an even more tense, hard man with a rough exterior and an even rougher interior. You’re almost rooting for him to eventually fall apart, at which point Barthemless’ performance takes a turn for the better. Barthemless never found success in the talkie era, and A Modern Hero provides an easy explanation for it. (He did later get one last great supporting role in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings though.)

Jean Muir gives the best performance in the film, and it makes you wish she was in more movies. Sadly, her career was cut short for good in 1950 when she was blacklisted. The prolific Marjorie Rambeau also gives a warm, touching performance as Pierre’s mother.

a modern hero richard barthemless jean muir

It is also hard to figure out what attracted Pabst to this material, other than the “money corrupts” message. He shows not a single dose of the visual style he honed in Germany. Blaming that on early sound technology does not work when talking about the same filmmaker behind Westfront 1918 and Kameradschaft. And it’s not like Fritz Lang ever had any problem translating his vision and style in his American films.

After A Modern Hero flopped, Pabst did not make another film at Warner Bros. Instead, he made the ill-advised decision of actually return to Europe. He did not make another movie until 1937 during a stint in France. After making three movies there, he gave up and moved back to Germany in 1938, and even made three movies during the war under the Nazis. Pabst continued making movies through 1956 and died in 1967, without ever having made another masterpiece.

Warner Archive’s DVD shows that A Modern Hero has not been treated well over the years. There is plenty of damage and whole sequences are jumpy. The disc includes a trailer.

Pabst’s German masterpieces are some of the finest examples of filmmaking, but A Modern Hero falls far short of those magnificent movies. Unlike Lang, Pabst struggled to adjust as the world changed around him and A Modern Hero makes that clear.

Thanks to Warner Archive for this disc to review! Note: all images are screencaptures from the DVD.

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