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A Modern Hero

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A Modern Hero
Film poster
Directed byG. W. Pabst
Written byLouis Bromfield
Gene Markey
Kathryn Scola
StarringRichard Barthelmess
CinematographyWilliam Rees
Edited byJames Gibbon
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • April 21, 1934 (1934-04-21)
Running time
71 minutes
CountryUnited States

A Modern Hero is a 1934 American pre-Code romance drama film starring Richard Barthelmess and directed by G. W. Pabst. It is based on the novel with the same title by Louis Bromfield. It was Pabst's only American talking film and the next-to-last film that Barthelmess made under contract to Warner Brothers.[1]


When a circus comes to Pentland, Illinois, young Joanna Ryan (Jean Muir) is seduced by trick rider Pierre Radier (Richard Barthelmess). Despite his physical skill, Pierre is dissatisfied with circus life and falls in love with Joanna. His mother, the one-armed circus star Madame Azais (Marjorie Rambeau), warns Pierre about falling in love. She tells how she lost her arm to a leopard because she was distracted by her love for Pierre's father, one of the richest men in Europe. She urges Pierre instead to act on his ambitions and desire for wealth. Joanna's drunken father (J. M. Kerrigan) confronts Pierre with news of Joanna's pregnancy, then died in an accident, Pierre offers to marry Joanna, but she wants the familiar stability of small-town life and marries local Elmer Croy (Theodore Newton). Croy knows about her pregnancy. Pierre gives her money for the child's support.

Joanna's Aunt Clara (Maidel Turner) arranges for Pierre to see his newborn son and introduces him to her friend, wealthy widow Leah Ernst (Florence Eldridge). Planning to open a bicycle shop with his friend Henry Mueller (Hobart Cavanaugh), Pierre borrows money from Leah and becomes her lover. The shop is a success, and Pierre and Henry move into the emerging automobile business, finding an eager backer in Homer Flint (Arthur Hohl), the richest man in the state. Meanwhile, afraid of losing Pierre, Leah seeks advice from Madame Azais, now a fortune-teller, unaware that she is Pierre's mother. Madame Azais warns Leah that she will not be able to hold Pierre, because no woman ever means as much to him as he does to himself.

In his quest for financial and social success, Pierre Americanizes his name to "Paul Rader" and becomes Flint's partner, driving Henry to go his own way. On the way to the country club, Paul proposes to Flint's daughter, Hazel (Dorothy Burgess), more to further his own ambitions than for love. At the club, a young boy offers to caddy for him, and Paul discovers that the boy is his son, Pierre Croy.

Now married but childless, Paul offers to adopt Pierre. Joanna flatly refuses, but she allows Paul to finance Pierre's education at an elite boarding school when Pierre is older. She worries that Paul may spoil his son, who is still unaware of his parentage.

In 1922, Paul escorts Pierre to school and stops in New York City, where he begins an affair with yet another wealthy woman, Lady Claire Benston (Verree Teasdale). Yearning for complete financial independence from Flint, Paul entrusts his entire fortune to a stock speculator. Pierre, now a young man, spends Christmas in New York with Paul and comes home drunk after a night on the town. Warning Pierre about the dangers of drinking “when it is in your blood”, Paul reveals that he is his father. The two look forward to a future in business together. Meanwhile a distraught Hazel finds Paul's will leaving everything to his son.

It all comes crashing down. The stock speculator, a swindler, vanishes. Lady Benston wants nothing further to do with Paul, calling him a peasant. Pierre is killed driving a new car given him by his father. When he brings Pierre's body to the grieving family, Joanna refuses to shake his hand. Paul leaves Hazel, who cries that she's glad Pierre is dead. Ruined and heartsick, Paul seeks out his mother. Though she is old and living in near-poverty, she tells him that he is free of his father's blood; he has finally learned what is real. They can make a fresh start in Europe. Paul kneels, saying, "Maybe some day, I'll be worthy of you."



  1. ^ Horak, Jan-Christopher (1987). "G.W. Pabst in Hollywood or Every Modern Hero Deserves a Mother". Film History. 1 (1): 53–63 – via JSTOR.
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