November 26, 2014 by smumcounty
Woodrow (Eddie Bracken) comes from a long line of war heroes. His father “Hinky Dinky” Truesmith was a hero who gave his life in the First World War so when World War II rolls around everyone expects that Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (yes, that’s his full name) will join up and make his father proud. Woodrow is more than willing to go. He’s eager to prove his mettle in battle but the military has other ideas; he’s washed out during boot camp because of his chronic hay fever. (Have you seen Eddie Bracken?) Instead of going home in disgrace and disappointing his adoring mother (Georgia Caine) he decides to get a job in a San Diego shipyard while he pretends to be fighting the war. He occasionally sends mom letters back from “the front” in order to further the ruse.
One night while Woodrow is enjoying a forlorn beer at a local watering hole a group of six Marines just back from the Battle of Guadalcanal walk in to wet their whistle. Unfortunately, they don’t have any money and their attempts to sell war memorabilia to the waiter fail. When Woodrow hears this he sends over a round of beers and a bracer of sandwiches to go with it. The Marines come over to thank Woodrow and he tells them of his failure to join their ranks. The elder Marine, Sgt. Heppelfinger (William Demarest), recognizes the name of Woodrow’s father as being that of his sergeant in World War I. When another Marine, Bugsy (Freddie Steele), hears about Woodrow’s mother waiting for him back home he takes it upon himself to call home and let her know that Woodrow has just gotten back from Guadalcanal and will be coming home the next day. The jig is up. Now Woodrow has to go home. Sgt. Heppelfinger has the bright idea that they’ll dress Woodrow up like a Marine and accompany him there. After a few days he’ll take off his uniform, they’ll leave, and it’ll all blow over.
It would have worked too, except for the hero’s welcome that the town gives Woodrow when he arrives. A huge crowd is there to meet him when he gets off the train with no less than four brass bands. Things go from bad to worse. At the gathering at the church later with Woodrow and all the Marines present, in order to honor Woodrow’s service, they burn the mortgage to Woodrow’s mother’s house which the citizens of the town have purchased from the bank. Woodrow is later informed that the town has decided to erect a monument in his honor. This is decidedly not blowing over. Later members of the town’s reform party come to Woodrow and tell him that they want him to run for mayor in order to unseat Mayor Everett Noble whom they consider corrupt. This then erupts into an impromptu political rally when Woodrow is pushed out onto the porch of his mother’s home to greet a crowd of adoring supporters. Woodrow doesn’t want any part of this but at this point Sgt. Heppelfinger takes over by exciting the crowd with true war stories but with Woodrow’s name replacing those of the other Marines. He’s convinced that Woodrow is the right man for the job and he’s going to make sure he’s elected whether Woodrow wants it or not.
Woodrow is now at his wits end, convinced that at any moment the townspeople will learn the truth and run him out of town on a rail. Desperate, he hits upon the bright idea of making up a story about being called back for active duty and therefore having to leave town again. At the political rally they hold the next day he rises to address the crowd with the intention of saying goodbye but he can’t go through with it. He can’t stand to leave his mother again and his goodbye speech becomes a mea culpa in which he comes clean. He leaves out the part where he was urged on by the Marines and instead claims that they were taken in just as much as anybody. Then he goes home to pack so he can catch the next train out of town. Sgt. Heppelfinger then rises to say his peace and set the record straight on a few things. “There’s six of us, see? We got fifteen cents between us and we’re from Guadalcanal and no foolin’ what I mean!”
The final scene has Woodrow waiting at the train station with the other Marines sans Sgt. Heppelfinger when the entire town comes marching down the street with Heppelfinger leading the way. Woodrow and the Marines fear a lynching but it’s nothing of the sort. The crowd has decided that only a truly honest and courageous man could have done what Woodrow just did and they still want him to run for mayor after knowing the truth. The Marines grab the train out of town and leave Woodrow restored to his mother and on the verge of becoming mayor. The movie ends with this last ode to the Marine Corps from Woodrow: “I knew the Marines could do almost anything, but I never knew they could do anything like this.”
Director Preston Sturges largely created the model for what we think of today as a writer/director. While working for Paramount in the early 40’s he made a string of seven comedies as writer and director that were wildly successful both with critics and audiences. Just as today one may wait expectantly for the next film from Wes Anderson, in the early 40’s the same reverence was brought to the next Sturges release. Those Sturges comedies of the 40’s had the same style and tone; madcap antics accompanied by rapid fire, smart dialogue with characters often talking over one another, and a winking, satirical viewpoint on societies foibles. Sturges commented on society in his comedies but never in a chastising, disapproving manner, rather with a sense that for better or worse, this is the human condition.
In “Hail the Conquering Hero”, Sturges has created a satire on hero worship, a commentary on the American public’s desire for heroes and the belief that those with military success can solve our more mundane problems. No matter how Woodrow tries to dissuade the crowd from his candidacy they’ll have none of it. But this commentary is delivered with kid gloves. A reverence for Woodrow may be based on lies but it is hardly misplaced. He is a good man with a solid underpinning of decency. Woodrow is firmly opposed to the mistruths that are being foisted on him by the well meaning Marines. It would have been a very different film if Woodrow had seen this as his chance to get ahead and had been complicit in the lies but then that wouldn’t have been a Sturges film at all.
Though a satire this is also very much a movie of its time and 1943 was the year Hollywood went to war in a big way, making what we would consider propaganda films to encourage the country to the war effort and “Hail the Conquering Hero” in its small way is one of these films. For example, early in the film when Woodrow is speaking with the Marines in the bar. As Woodrow names all the battles that the Marines have ever been in, the camera slowly dollies into a close up of his beaming face. If that doesn’t make you buy more war bonds, I don’t know what will.
The best example of this propaganda comes later when members of the town are trying to convince Woodrow to run for mayor. Judge Dennis (Jimmy Conlin) explains what he sees is wrong with the town. It’s a direct call for people on the home front to make sacrifices in order to support the war effort:
Here too the camera dollies in slowly to underline the seriousness of the Judge’s call for sacrifice.
The movie is very matter of fact about the sacrifices and hardships in war, however. There are some subtle references to post-traumatic stress disorder in this film, for example. When Bugsy tries to get Woodrow to stop drinking and to consider the feelings of his mother, Woodrow has had it with this Marine and his “mother complex.” “Are you nuts or something?” he asks him. “Maybe,” Bugsy replies. Later when Woodrow is trying to tell his former fiancé the truth about his military service he appeals to Sgt. Heppelfinger to tell her that he’s a phony. “We’re all phonies.” Heppelfinger says while he winks at her behind Woodrow’s back. ”Especially after a hard day only sometimes we’re more phony than others. You get me?” “You oughta see me in a thunderstorm,” another Marine pipes up.
The production on “Hail the Conquering Hero” started out smoothly. Sturges planned it to be a small, simple film and he was able to reuse many of the same sets he had used for his previous film “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”, but the post production was another matter. This was Sturges’ last film for Paramount; he was leaving the studio because of disagreements in editorial control and censorship issues and he had actually left prior to the film’s final cut. After an unsuccessful preview, the film was recut by producer Buddy DeSylva. After another unsuccessful preview and after “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” had just come out and turned out a huge hit, Paramount brought Sturges back to fix the film. Sturges re-wrote the script and retakes were scheduled allowing Sturges to restore the film to his original conception. The tinkering paid off. The film was released to approval from both audiences and critics alike. Bosley Crowther from The New York Times was especially favorable, writing that this film proves that Sturges is one of the smartest filmmakers around and that “this superlative small-town comedy is also one of the wisest ever to burst from a big-time studio.” High praise, indeed. Sturges also garnered an Academy Award nomination for screenplay for “Hail the Conquering Hero” in which category he competed with himself for the screenplay for “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”.
The performances in “Hail the Conquering Hero”, as in all Sturges films, are spot on. Eddie Bracken portrays Woodrow in much the same comic vane as he established in Sturges’ “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”, manic, frenzied, and fretful. William Demarest gives one of the most sympathetic performances in his career as the eldest Marine. He is gruff but lovable, just the kind of no-nonsense Marine a war weary public needed. He’s been through hell but hasn’t let it affect him and he’s ready to go back for more if that’s what it takes. The other Marines are mostly all of a single note except for Freddie Steele as Bugsy, the mother obsessed Marine. Steele was middleweight boxing champion of the world between 1936 and 1938 known as the Tacoma Assassin. Here he gives a mealy-mouthed understated performance that nearly steals the film. Time and again he expresses his devotion to Woodrow’s mother in small subtle ways, a caring glance here, a touch there. In a group scene, I found myself watching Bugsy to see his reaction to any slight towards Woodrow’s mother. His performance really adds another dimension to the film.
Then there is the usual array of character actors from Sturges’ unofficial stock company. Franklin Pangborn does a manic turn as the organizer of the welcoming that greets Woodrow at the train station. This was the second of three films that Raymond Walburn made with Sturges. But that’s nothing to Al Bridge who portrays the mayor’s political consultant. This was the sixth of ten films that Al made with Sturges. Then there are also Sturges regulars Harry Hayden, Chester Conklin, Jimmy Conlin, Esther Howard, Arthur Hoyt, Torben Meyer, and Charles R. Moore. All of whom deserve blog posts of their own in my Know Your Character Actor series. Sturges’ repeated use of the same actors in his films was one of the sore spots with Paramount. Paramount felt that the audience would tire of these actors but for my part that’s one of the charms of watching a Sturges film or any film from the 30’s and 40’s, the chance to reconnect with a familiar face.
After Sturges left Paramount his track record was spotty at best. Millionaire Howard Huges was a personal friend of Sturges and he agreed to bankroll him in the development of his own production company, California Pictures. This made him a writer-director-producer one of only a handful of such talents in the world and the only one in Hollywood besides Charlie Chaplin. But he was never able to achieve the success that he had in the early 40’s with his Paramount productions. Still, if those seven films were his only accomplishments, they would be enough to ensure his legacy.