March 27, 2010
Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)
Grade: 72/100

Director: Preston Sturges
Stars: Eddie Bracken, Ella Raines, William Demarest

What it's about. Set during World War II. Every young American male is supposed to be overseas fighting the Nazis or Japs. Woodrow (Eddie Bracken) would love to be over there, but was discharged from the Marines due to chronic hay fever. He has since avoided returning home to his small town, and has kept up the pretense of Marines service for the sake of his Mother, who cherishes the memory of Woodrow's father, a bona fide Marines hero during World War I.

One day, six Marines on leave, led by sergeant William Demarest, are treated to drinks by Woodrow. They listen to his tale of woe, and decide to help him return home a hero.

Plans go awry when the always easily exasperated Franklin Pangborn organizes a massive hometown reception party, and Woodrow is drafted into running for mayor in the guise of a decorated hero of Guadalcanal. The six Marines stay with Woodrow at the home of his stereotypical, proud mother (Georgia Caine), and pressure him to go with the flow. Mother-obsessed Marine Freddie Steele is particularly menacing.

The current mayor, pompous windbag Noble (Raymond Walburn), schemes with jaded political operative Al Bridge to undermine Woodrow. This causes trouble for his upright (but dull) grown son Forrest (Bill Edwards), who has made wedding plans with gorgeous Libby (Ella Raines). Woodrow broke up with Libby the year before, but because it's a movie, she still pines for the dufus.

How I felt about it. Hail the Conquering Hero was one of eight comedies that writer/director Preston Sturges made at Paramount. These are highly regarded today, and are especially admired for their vaguely maverick style.

Sturges, of course, was limited in what he could do by the Production Code. This meant that no dishonor could fall upon the Marine Corps, and that Woodrow would either have to come clean or receive his comeuppance. Sturges loved to write his lead characters into a corner, from which they appear to have no honorable escapes.

Perhaps the best example of this is in The Palm Beach Story. Claudette Colbert wants to marry hunky Joel McCrea, but she has promised herself to Rudy Vallee, who has done nothing to merit a breakup. Sturges extricates Colbert through a last-minute plot contrivance that must be seen to be believed.

Another example is poor Eddie Bracken in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. He practically ends up on the Most Wanted List for merely trying to preserve the reputation of Betty Hutton, but is rescued in another preposterous final reel plot twist.

But here, Woodrow takes himself out of hot water, simply by telling the full truth to the full public, damn the consequences. Such grim honesty is rarer in comedy than it is in politics. After that, we can even forgive the unlikely event of the whole town coming to the rail station to make Woodrow mayor and prevent his self-exile.

I believe that Hail the Conquering Hero is the best of Sturges' films, by a slight margin over The Palm Beach Story, The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, and Bracken's previous Sturges' feature, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. Sturges' fortunes declined after leaving Paramount, where he was always aided by capable comic actors, especially the ever cantankerous William Demarest.

1944 was the big year for ravishing actress Ella Raines. In addition to the present memorable comedy, she co-starred with John Wayne in Tall in the Saddle, and made the remarkable "B" movie Phantom Lady.