G. W. Pabst was as cosmopolitan a director as the early-talkie period produced. The German director of late-silent classics like Pandora's Box didn't want to lose his international standing with the coming of sound. So like the Hollywood studios he made multiple versions in different languages of several of his early talking films. He also became a cinematic nomad, leaving Germany with the rise of Hitler, the Nazis being no fans of his Threepenny Opera or Kameradschaft, to make films in France. It was probably inevitable that he would follow fellow German geniuses Ernst Lubitsch and Friedrich W. Murnau to Hollywood. The Pre-Code period probably was the best time to cross over, and Warner Bros. probably was the ideal studio for Pabst. Warners assigned him an adaptation of Louis Bromfield's 1932 best-selling novel A Modern Hero. I can't help wondering if that was because the novel's hero starts in a circus, since German cinema made a lot of circuses. Modern Hero traces a singular rise-and-fall character arc as Pierre Radier (Richard Barthelmess) rises from bareback rider to automobile tycoon, loving and leaving ladies along the way and changing his name to Paul Rader to better fit into the upper crust. While the women in his life are disposable, he retains a soft spot for the boy he left behind, the one he sired in a one-night stand with starstruck Joanna Ryan (Jean Muir) in Pentland back in his circus days. His ambition is twofold: to make a name for himself and to give the boy, who only knows him as a friendly patron at first, all the opportunities he missed in his youth. As for the women, Pierre's mother (Marjorie Rambeau), a maimed animal tamer turned alkie fortune teller, sums it up for another of her boy's paramours by saying, "Being a woman ain't much fun, is it?"
There's a frankness about Pierre's sexual adventures that's part Pabst, part Pre-Code, and by the standards of rise-and-fall melodrama Modern Hero is admirably understated until the final reel, when it goes completely off the rails. The script (if not the novel) arranges for Paul Rader to lose his fortune to a bad investment and his son to a car wreck all in one day. We're invited to see this as some sort of comeuppance as Paul, on a train ride back to Pentland, relives his mistakes as flashbacks that recede to the horizon as the train moves on. It looked like a set-up for suicide to me, but the film ends on such a preposterous note that I find it hard to believe that Pabst himself filmed it. Paul goes looking for his mom but is told that "Madame Azais" has moved away. She hasn't quite, however, and instead we get a sentimental reunion in which the mother, who hasn't yet started drinking ("I'm bad when I'm drunk" she told a customer earlier), reassures her boy that all may have been for the best, since now Pierre presumably knows the difference between what's worthwhile and what isn't. Mother and son decide to start over in Europe, Pierre promising to become worthy of his mom. That looks like Pre-Code covering its tracks -- the film was an April 1934 release, so Code Enforcement was no excuse -- but very little like Pabst, who himself went back to Europe, and eventually back to Nazi Germany, after Modern Hero failed at the box office. Trade papers reported that he'd sign with RKO, but nothing came of that, and with Code Enforcement coming Pabst's window of opportunity to do anything worthwhile in Hollywood was closing fast.
The most interesting thing about A Modern Hero is Richard Barthelmess's performance. Pierre Radier is supposed to be a serial seducer but Pabst gets Barthelmess to give a coolly introverted performance, toning down his regional accent to achieve a soulless flatness. Despite how that all sounds, it's actually one of Barthelmess's most relaxed performances in talkies. The one problem with it is that the role presumes a certain irresistible quality in Radier/Rader, while Barthelmess, once a beautiful youth, is definitely starting to go sour inside at age 38. Hero was his last film but one for Warner Bros. It may be regrettable that Pabst didn't get to work with the real stars of the Warners stock company, but for Pabst's purposes a more naturalistic acting style than Cagney or Robinson or Muni practiced was required, and to his credit and the film's Barthelmess delivered the goods. In the end A Modern Hero is a failure, too short on the melodrama that fuels its genre until there's way too much, but for the most part it's a worthwhile failure, i.e. a failure worth a look.