Monday, September 19, 2016

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

Director: Preston Sturges


In the heart of World War II many men felt the call of duty to serve their country, but not all men would qualify for the task. Preston Sturges’ comedy Hail the Conquering Hero takes a humorous look at a man that does not qualify for the armed forces, but is desperate to not embarrass his family in the process. As one of the most creative comedic writers in Hollywood, Sturges was a misunderstood filmmaker at the studio, and although Hail the Conquering Hero was one of his finest works, it marked an end to a significant time period in his career.

Hero... the fraud.
Preston Sturges and his usual band of character actors return in Hail the Conquering Hero, a satirical comedy/drama of a young man whose fabrications of military service brings him unwanted renowned by his hometown, much to his embarrassment and guilt. Humiliated by his discharge from the military for his chronic hay fever, Woodrow Tuesmith’s (Eddie Bracken) white lie of serving overseas turns him into a local hero when a group of Marines made aware of his lie force him to return to his small home town. To his embarrassed chagrin Woodrow’s neighbors, seeing him an honorable man, sing his praises to the point where they attempt to make him their next mayor. Unable to live with such a lie Woodrow admits his fabricated story and prepares to leave town in shame only for the citizens to embrace him for his honesty, compared to the crooked politician that runs the town.

It is a wacky comedy full of wit and off the wall humor. As an audience you are embarrassed along with Woodrow as we witness him dig himself into further holes of untruths. This is a classic Preston Sturges comedy that keeps you entertained, laughing, while concurrently makes to some degree a statement about the American culture and hero worship. Hail the Conquering Hero is a tale that honors the men and women fighting overseas while bringing those who cannot pride in that they can still do honorable things at home. The film is a lot of things, but in the end it is just a movie, simply to entertain, which it does so very well.

Utilizing his classic humor and storytelling qualities, writer/director/producer Preston Sturges returns many of his favorite actors in yet another one of his goofy comedies about ordinary people in a small American town. Starring the peculiar, but very endearing Eddie Bracken as the young man whose military discharge puts him in position he feels will shame his family. From this simple notion this film takes us on a journey of how one man’s little white lie leads to great problems. Much like Buster Keaton’s character in The General, Bracken’s character feels great shame in his inability to join the service. Even though Bracken is not as talented as Keaton in the realm of physical comedy, it is his use of expression that make Bracken just about the perfect little guy that wants to do good, but finds himself in a deep mess.

Bracken with Ella Raines under the watchful eye of Demarest.
Other players of the usual Sturges’ company of actors make their appearance in this picture, none more prevalent than the character actor William Demarest as Sgt. Heffelfinger. In this picture Demarest is the figurehead Marine of the group and plays a father figure to Wodrow, whose father died in World War I. It is Heffelfinger that builds up his confidence and pushes him to do the right thing. His performance is altogether forgettable, meaning just about any middle aged Paramount actor could have filled this character’s shoes, but with Sturges being loyal to his actors it ended up with the stern, barrel-chested Demarest in the role.

Ella Raines performs as Bracken’s love interest, Libby, a local sweetheart of a girl, adding an additional layer to the complications of Woodrow’s life. Libby was Woodrow’s girlfriend before he attempted to join the Marines, but in the length of time he had been gone she became engaged to the mayor’s son, but does not have the heart to tell Woodrow. Woodrow, unaware of Libby’s romantic entanglement, wants Libby to be free of their old relationship and find herself a better man, but has trouble telling her, afraid of hurting her feelings.  As the two become reacquainted they eventually share the truth to each other, but realize they have fallen in love with each other all over again.

Woodrow drinks away his sorrows as a discharge with Marines.
Producers did not agree with the casting choices of Sturges, disliking his reuse of actors in his prior movies, as well as casting Ella Raines, feeling she was too pretty to play a small town girl. Sturges’ tactic to get his way was to simply plow on with production until the studio had no choice, but to let Sturges complete the picture.

However, by the end of principle production the studio had as much as they wanted from the filmmaker and dismissed him before the editing began. The studio edited to their liking the picture and tested it with audiences to vastly negative reviews. Stumped, the studio allowed Sturges to return to Paramount to rework the script, shoot new scenes, and re-edit the picture back to his liking, all done for the filmmakers own pride and without pay. This newly reworked picture would become the feature that would eventually release to wide audiences and played to positive reviews garnering Sturges an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay.

All this praise did not smooth out anything between Paramount and Preston Sturges as the severed ties. Paramount struggled to understand the ways of a filmmaker that tended to work only with the same people every time and finding himself under fire by censors for his material. Sturges would attempt to work independently, taking years to finally produce more films and to far lesser accolades.

Hail the Conquering Hero was one of the highest praised films of the year by the National Board of Review and other film critics. In time the picture was seen as one of Sturges’ most beloved picture, even finding itself elected to the National Film Registry in 2015. Ultimately it was the marker for the beginning of the end for Sturges as one of the greatest comedy directors in Hollywood. His humor inspired countless filmmakers, writers, humorists, and comedians well into the future and films such as Hail the Conquering Hero lives on in tribute of this man’s great creative mind.

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