#167) Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

#167) Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

OR “Hey, Mr. Sham-Marine Man”

Directed & Written by Preston Sturges

Class of 2015

No original trailer, but here’s a preview from I’m guessing someone’s VHS.

The Plot: Woodrow Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) leaves his small hometown of Oakridge to become a Marine like his late father. Due to his chronic hay fever, he is discharged within a month, and spends a year working in a shipyard while telling his mother (Georgia Caine) that he’s fighting overseas. While commiserating at a bar, Woodrow happens on six Marines led by Sgt. Heffelfinger (William Demarest), who served with Woodrow’s father in WWI. To repay Woodrow for buying a round of drinks, the Marines tell his mother that he received a medical discharge and is coming home. Woodrow is reluctant to go along with the lie, especially when he gets home and finds the whole town cheering his heroism and requesting he run for mayor. Hilarity ensues.

Why It Matters: The NFR claims that Preston Sturges was the rare writer/director of the time who could “satirize the worship of war heroes”. After that, the NFR leaves the praise to contemporary reviews of the film by New York Times critic Bosley Crowther and French critic Andre Bazin. They seemed to like it.

But Does It Really?: It’s not the definitive Preston Sturges film, but it sure did make me laugh. There’s a lot of good stuff in here, from Sturges reliably airtight script to a performance from Eddie Bracken that is equal parts hilarious and heart-warming. The plot snowballs at a hilarious pace and the premise never outstays its welcome. Plus if you think about it, it’s kinda crazy that they got away with very subtly making fun of worshiping our military while we were still in WWII. “Hail the Conquering Hero” is a minor classic to be sure, but a classic nonetheless.

Shout Outs: Look closely in the finale for a poster advertising Sturges’ previous film, “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”.

Everybody Gets One: Most of the actors in this film were members of Preston Sturges’ stock company and appear elsewhere on the list. The few “one-and-done” performers include veteran character actor Raymond Wallburn and pin-up girl Ella Raines.

Wow, That’s Dated: Lots of ‘40s slang and WWII references in this one. And, as predicted, there are a few uncomfortable references to “Japs”.

Title Track: There’s one scene 21 minutes in where there is a debate about what song to play when Woodrow comes home. The song “Hail the Conquering Hero” is mentioned several times in a matter of seconds, and then never again.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Hail the Conquering Hero” received one Oscar nomination: Original Screenplay for Preston Sturges. His competition included…himself, additionally nominated for “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”. Whether he split the vote or not we’ll never know, but the winner that year was the screenplay for Best Picture-nominee “Wilson”.

Other notes

  • Preston Sturges’ films always seemed to me like Frank Capra films that had leaned in to their comedic elements. Both filmmakers excelled at sweet stories of small town idealism, and while Capra’s are better known today, Sturges’ are a lot funnier.
  • This film is from that point in the ‘40s when Eddie Bracken was your top choice over Donald O’Connor, and not the other way around.
  • Movie bars: where the only thing on tap is “beer”.
  • The scene where Woodrow meets the Marines and tells them about his father is done in one continuous take. Nothing flashy, just the man and his story. And that’s all you need.
  • Woodrow’s father presumably got his nickname “Hinky Dinky” from the WWI song “Mademoiselle from Armentieres”.
  • Franklin Pangborn plays the Committee Chairman, who I’ll just assume is one of them “confirmed bachelors”.
  • Let the record show that Eddie Bracken is only five years older than his on-screen love interest Ella Raines. That’s an inoffensive misdemeanor on the Michael Douglas Scale.
  • Everyone in this town goes to the same church. What is this, “The Simpsons”?
  • Bracken’s reactions, though. They are worth the trip out.
  • Don’t worry about that statue of you, Woodrow. They’ll just tear it down in 75 years anyway.
  • Libby is lit with the Morticia Addams follow-spot.
  • How many wry non-committal one-liners does Forrest need from Libby? She’s. Not. Interested.
  • Werner Heymann’s score sounds like everyone’s going to break into song at any point.
  • Woodrow is very concerned that his will be “an election based on fraud”. That is some low-hanging fruit; you can make your own joke.
  • Woodrow and Libby take a late-night walk during the brightest evening on record. Was there a supermoon that night?
  • Woodrow hatches his plan just as morning breaks. His idea literally dawns on him.
  • “I’m as sane as a Dane.” You’re forgetting about Hamlet, aren’t you?
  • We are informed at the end that people gravitate towards certain politicians simply because they like them. “They don’t need reasons anymore.” This film has way too much vague political talk that can still be applicable today. I guess that’s how you write a classic.

Legacy

  • “Hail the Conquering Hero” was Preston Struges’ last great hurrah as a filmmaker. It was his last film under his contract with Paramount and, no love lost, he jumped ship to become an independent filmmaker. Unfortunately he chose Howard Hughes – already in his post-“Outlaw” decline – as his business partner, and Sturges’ film career never recovered.

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