Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)
Genre: Screwball comedy
Preston Sturges is known for his satires of the Hays Code restrictions for Hollywood films and “Hail the Conquering Hero” is one of my favorites of his. It’s got the usual group of actors Sturges liked to work with as well as his usual trademark things like a plot that gallops out of control, several crowd scenes with busy dialogue and the fine line between sentiment and irony. He managed to direct a film that not only idolizes the Marine Corp but also sends up the hero worship that can result from swallowing everything you’re told without checking your facts.
Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken), named for the president, the French hero, and the American general, is the son of a WWI hero who died the day his son was born. Woodrow’s whole life has gone into wanting to be a Marine but when he’s discharged a month into boot camp due to chronic hay fever, he hides his shame by writing his mother some fake letters which claim he’s in combat while actually working at a shipyard. A year later, he meets some Marines on leave and discovers one is an old friend of his father. Sgt. Heppelfinger (William Demerest) regales the other Marines with stories of Truesmith Sr while another Marine sneaks off and phones Woodrow’s mother with the news her son is home and has been discharged due to war injuries. Faced with the fait accompli, Woodrow and the Marines take the train to his small hometown where Woodrow hopes to slip into town unnoticed.
No such luck as the entire town plus four brass bands turn out to greet him, the local hero. But wait, there’s more. To Woodrow’s horror the town not only buys – and burns – the mortgage on Mrs. Truesmith’s (Georgia Caine) house but they nominate Woodrow for the upcoming mayoral race. In addition, Libby, the girl he left back home (Ella Raines), and to whom he wrote a letter releasing her from their engagement, is due to marry the son of the current mayor (Raymond Walburn) against whom Woodrow would be running though it’s obvious she still holds a candle for Woodrow. It’s only at the last minute that Woodrow can finally get the town to accept what he’s been trying to tell them all along. But will they run him out of town when they discover the truth or realize what makes him a true hero?
So here we have a war movie with no war scenes, a war hero who’s never made it out of boot camp, a Girl Next Door who didn’t wait for his return, a Marine who tells Woodrow that the lies which are being told are just political promises which the people expect and an entire town which wants to believe the lies instead of the truth they’ve been told all along. And it’s funny as hell. Fast paced, witty, and filled with the wonderful actors who often starred in his films it’s one of Sturges’ best though it took two disastrous previews to convince the studio to allow him to re-edit it back to his original vision for it.
Eddie Bracken is so homely he’s cute and though at first it’s hard to believe that a lovely young woman like Libby would throw over her current beau ideal fiance for him, by the end of the film it’s easy to see why she’s still in love with such an honorable man. William Demerest stands out among the Marines who are ready to push Woodrow forward against his better judgment but who will also cover his back when they feel he’s in danger. Walburn is hilarious as the fast talking current Mayor who’s ready to dictate a campaign speech at a moments notice while Al Bridge is his sardonic political aid and Esther Howard rips him up as his wife. Franklin Pangborn, playing his usual fussy character, almost has a nervous breakdown trying to orchestrate the Welcome Home celebration while Georgia Caine portrays the ideal of Motherhood.
Members of Netflix can rent or watch the film but it’s only out on DVD as part of a Sturges set. However it is being shown on TCM this Sunday. Made during the short number of years during which Sturges turned out his best films, I think it improves upon a second watching then keeps getting better. B+