Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

“We’re doin’ it for your ma, kid!”

Synopsis:
A would-be Marine (Eddie Bracken) discharged with hayfever meets a group of veteran Marines who convince him to tell his mother (Georgia Caine) he was wounded in battle. Soon Woodrow (Bracken) finds himself nominated for mayor of his hometown, much to the dismay of the current mayor (Raymond Walburn), who hopes to be re-elected; meanwhile, Woodrow’s former fiancee (Ella Raines) tries to get up the courage to let Woodrow know she’s now engaged to Walburn’s son (Bill Edwards).

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that this “frantically paced satire” is “skillfully directed in the usual … manner” by writer/director Preston Sturges, with “confused, fast-talking, philosophical characters zip[ping] in and out of the crowded frame, fighting for space to stand in and time to say their two cents’ worth”. However, he argues that while “there are funny scenes and moments”, overall he “finds the script pretty weak, like Capra at his phoniest and corniest”, and points out that “the naive, easily fooled and manipulated common folk have counterparts in Meet John Doe” (which neither of us much likes). He accurately notes that “the most interesting aspect [of the film] is that in 1944 Sturges dared and got away with satirizing Momism, patriotism, politicians and the political process, honor, the military (imagine Marines pulling a hoax to influence an election!), hero worship, and the ingenuous American public”.

While I agree with the gist of Peary’s sentiments, I’m impressed enough by Sturges’ astonishing ability to get away with so many pointed satirical barbs that I ultimately disagree with Peary’s assertion about the script being “weak”. Though the film made me uncomfortable at times (it’s truly relentlessly paced), there were enough clever moments and humorous performances to keep me fully engaged throughout. Freddie Steele gives a particularly focused (and quietly hilarious) performance as a ferociously mother-loving Marine, and Franklin Pangborn (perfectly cast as the reception organizer) simply steals the scene whenever he’s on screen (which is refreshingly often). Meanwhile, Bracken is note-perfect in the lead role; one can’t help empathizing with his plight from the get-go.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Eddie Bracken as Woodrow Truesmith
  • Franklin Pangborn as the Reception Committee Chairman
  • Freddie Steele as mother-loving Bugsy
  • William Demarest as Sgt. Heppelfinger
  • Raymond Walburn as weaselly Mayor Noble
  • Sturges’ boldly satirical screenplay

Must See?
Yes, as one of Sturges’ many enjoyable satiric comedies.

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One Response to “Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)”

  1. A must – as a Sturges ‘comedy’ with a difference.

    Filmmakers who have found their main success in one particular genre often have difficulty maintaining audience interest and affection if they shift gears. Depending on the shift, audiences can either turn off altogether (which tends to be the case) or embrace the artist in new light. (Woody Allen addresses this directly in ‘Stardust Memories’, in which minor characters talk about only wanting comedies from the director. On the other hand, when Ingmar Bergman turned from dramas for his one-off with ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’, audiences were charmed and probably glad for the break from Bergman’s angst.)

    I mention this because I don’t think ‘Hail the Conquering Hero’ is first and foremost a comedy. After all, how funny is a film about widespread deceit supposed to be? ~especially if it’s to be effective. What makes me “uncomfortable” about this film is not its fast pace; I rather like the frenetic wordplay and don’t find it all that hard to keep up with. I’m much more bothered by the film’s theme – bothered in the sense that lying (and lying large) is such a destructive force. Hitler is famously quoted as saying, “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and people will believe it.” And the result can bring false glory (as it does in this film) or genuine ruin (as it does, for example, in ‘The Children’s Hour’).

    That said, ‘HTCH’ is still Sturges – and he manages an interesting kind of balancing act here so that we do still get a sort-of comedy-drama. I find some of the blend a bit forced (i.e., I think the sequence involving the town band constantly starting up at the wrong time somewhat overdone). But this is a film I end up admiring quite a bit. It’s not important to me that it’s more like a fable – and, therefore, not totally believable. I’m fond of the film’s overriding point – which I feel builds very nicely, esp. in the last 15 minutes or so.

    Sturges elicits fine performances from his very ensemble cast. I probably prefer Bracken in the earlier part of the film – because, as the lie grows, he has little to play but hysteria. However, he is given a marvelous speech near the end and delivers it beautifully. I also like how Raines underplays for the most part, making it so easy for us to sympathize with her. This may be Demarest’s largest role in a Sturges film and he has a whale of a time with it (esp. when he’s sparring with Bracken over what constitutes a lie). I’m quite taken with some of his throwaway lines as well (i.e., when he’s describing to Bracken the father Bracken never knew: “He was a fine-looking fellow. He didn’t look anything like you at all.”)

    A brief word about Steele as Bugsy: the last look captured of his face is priceless!

    I probably don’t agree that ‘HTCH’ toys with Capra territory. When Capra goes way overboard with sentiment, it tends to be a turn-off, it’s true. But I don’t feel Sturges is manipulative with this film. The conclusion does choke me up.

    Note: Yes, there was a long period of time in which the word ‘gay’ simply meant ‘cheerful’. Still, I get a kick out of this exchange in the bar, as Woodrow is listening to a small group singing –

    Woodrow: Why don’t they sing something gay?
    Bartender: Why don’t you acquire a gay viewpoint?

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