Tom (Richard Barthelmess) suffers through the horrors of World War I and The Great Depression as a war hero with none of the glory; Roger Winston (Gordon Westcott), thinking Tom dead during a deadly mission, takes the credit for capturing a German officer and is awarded a medal of honour.
Back to civilian life after recovering from his injuries as a POW, Tom has a crippling morphine addiction and is treated unjustly even when he sacrificed so much for his country.
Able to kick his addiction, Tom finds himself in Chicago where he meets kind Mary (Aline MacMahon) and her father who run a restaurant and an apartment building. There he meets and falls in love with Ruth (Loretta Young). Ruth works at a laundromat and gets Tom a job there. With his quick mind, he’s able to work his way up and live a relatively happy life. But it begins to fall apart when his boss dies, and the company is taken over by uncaring businessmen. Thrust once again into uncertainty and torment, Tom struggles to keep his dignity and care for his family and friends.
Heroes for Sale displays the following tropes:
- Bittersweet Ending: The film ends with Tom as a hobo, trying to find decent work, but his son says that he wants to be like his father when he grows up.
- Crapsack World: How America treated, and still treats, its war veterans.
- Dirty Coward: Roger freaks out during the mission, so Tom captures a German officer all by himself. Lampshaded by Roger:Roger: There I was, everybody making a hero of me. I accepted it because I didn't have guts enough to refuse it... It went on, and on - the honours piled up. And everyone I got made it more impossible to tell the truth. I couldn't let go. I know that all my promotions and decorations belong to you. I know that I've stolen the credit from a real hero.
- Disappeared Dad: Justified since Tom was put in jail and is being persecuted by anti-communists.
- Dude, Where's My Respect?: The world treats veterans with no respect. Tom, and and eventually Roger, experience this firsthand when they are treated harshly by policemen as hobos.
- Fake Ultimate Hero: Roger plays up the noble war hero card with his father and gets all the glory. The irony being that he eventually loses it all just as much as Tom even as a decorated war hero.
- Hobos: Tom and Roger become hobos as the Great Depression ravages on.
- Idiot Ball: Tom, thinking that he can calm down an angry mob who’s out for blood, follows them and makes himself look like their leader. Ruth, on the other hand, follows this angry mob, trying to save Tom from them. She puts herself in danger and is murdered by one of the protesters.
- It's a Small World, After All: Eventually Tom bumps into Roger under some bridge in the middle of nowhere.
- Jerkass: Roger's father to Tom. He's very unsympathetic to Tom's addiction.
- Job-Stealing Robot: What the laundromat workers are rioting about. Tom and Max created a machine for the laundromat to make the work easier, but they made sure to secure the workers’ jobs. However, when the owner dies, the new businessmen want to spend less, so they fire the workers and have the machines do most of the work.
- Kill the Poor: Max has this idea after having turned into a member of the Nouveau Riche."If I was running the world...I would kill everybody that needed anything."
- Love Triangle: Between Ruth, Mary, and Tom. Mary is the only one that experiences Unrequited Love.
- Miscarriage of Justice: Tom gets wrongfully accused and convicted of leading a mob and inciting to riot.
- Missing Mom: Ruth gets killed, leaving Tom and their son alone. Mary becomes a surrogate mother for Tom and Ruth’s child.
- Never Say "Die": Tom tells his son that his mother went somewhere.
- No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: First Tom captures the German officer and gets injured in his back. Later he tries to stop the Powder Keg Crowd but in turn gets accused of being their Rabble Rouser and gets sentenced to five years of hard labor.
- Picture-Perfect Presentation: There is a scene transitioning from a newspaper photograph to the real location at a laundromat.
- Powder Keg Crowd: It just needs one stone throw to start the riot between the angry mob and the police force.
- Prisoner Exchange: After the war is over, Tom gets returned to his own lines via an exchange of prisoners between Germany and the Allies.
- Recovered Addict: Due to his bullet injury from the war, the German doctors treat Tom’s excruciating pain with powerful morphine pills. Tom becomes addicted to them and gets sent to jail because he can no longer function. After a year, he’s able to quit cold turkey.
- Red Scare: Tom goes to jail because he “led” the mob and was thought a communist. The whole reason why he must bum around the country is because he’s being watched by anti-communist forces who want to kill him.
- The Stoic: Tom.
- Straw Hypocrite: Max Brinker is a straw communist who gets exceedingly greedy once he makes enough money.Tom Holmes: You used to hate the capitalists.Max Brinker: Naturally. That was before I had money.
- Surprisingly Sudden Death: Ruth gets clubbed to death by a single blow of the truncheon, it happens without warning and buildup and her body falls with a totally shocked look on its face.
- Take That!: The movie attacks the hypocrisies of both capitalism and communism.
- Time-Compression Montage: Tom's five years at prison gets captured in a couple of key shots with the year numbers popping up on screen.
- Travel Montage: Tom's travel across the country is illustrated with a pan across the map of the United States.
- Unrequited Love: Mary has always had a thing for Tom. She never acts on it.
- Verbal Tic: Max’s constant “tisk, tisk, tisk” noise he makes when he disapproves. Usually for an un-communist way of thinking.
- Video Credits: The film begins this way.