Sunday, January 5, 2014

Film Review: Hail the Conquering Hero

"Hail the Conquering Hero"  **** (out of ****)

Preston Sturges' "Hail the Conquering Hero" (1944) is a comedy masterpiece. A movie which raises comedic heights to perfection. A textbook example on how to properly write screen comedy.

"Hail the Conquering Hero" has always been one of my favorite Sturges comedies, but, I feel gets lost in shuffle to his other films. So many people are content to give cliche, standard "correct" answers when asked what is the best Preston Sturges comedy. People will usually respond "Sullivan's Travels" (1941), "The Lady Eve" (1941) or "Miracle of Morgan's Creek" (1944). All fine pictures, but because of those movies few seek out "Hail the Conquering Hero". Too bad.

Preston Sturges is one of my favorite comedy directors. When I was younger, in college, making movies, Sturges was one of my cinematic inspirations. He makes the type of comedies I always wanted to. Sturges so perfectly balances verbal wit and slapstick comedy. I am a big fan of the great verbal comics like Groucho Marx and Bob Hope, guys who could deliver a great one-liner and quip. But, I'm also a fan of slapstick comedy. Charlie Chaplin is my absolute favorite comedy director and I love watching Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon and Laurel & Hardy.

The problem for me was I wanted to put everything into my comedies. Just throw in slapstick and verbal jokes. Thus I could never find the proper tone. That was Sturges' gift. He knew how to find the proper balance and create comedies which were a perfect blend. A prime example is "Unfaithfully Yours" (1948, which I have reviewed). "Hail the Conquering Hero" doesn't have much slapstick in it, but it has some terrific dialogue and an excellent comedy structure.

Eddie Bracken (who was also in "Miracle of Morgan's Creek") plays Woodrow Truesmith. A Marine who was discharged for chronic hay fever after serving for one month. You see, Woodrow's father also served and was a war hero. It had always been Woodrow's dream to follow in his father's footsteps and become a war hero too. With his discharge Woodrow is filled with shame. He can't face his mother or go back home. So he lies for a full year and writes to his mother (they didn't have email or texting back then. The good ol' days) and tells her he has been transferred over-seas. Meanwhile he has gotten a job in factory.

On this particular night Woodrow will meet a group of Marines on leave for five days. They are headed by Sgt. Heppelfinger (William Demarest, a Sturges regular in films such as "The Great Moment (1944, which I have reviewed) and "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek"). The Marines are broke, so, Woodrow decides to buy the boys a round of drinks and sandwiches. Woodrow then tells the boys his story and they decide to "help out" by telling Woodrow's mother he is returning home and he is a decorated hero. In fact, they will go home with Woodrow to make him look good in front of his mother.

All of this makes Woodrow uneasy. He puts on his old uniform, one of the Marines even stick some medals on him. What he doesn't know is his mother has told the entire town of his return and they have decided to give him a big hero's welcome. A welcome committee headed by Franklin Pangborn (another Sturges' regular and a comedy veteran in such comedies as "The Bank Dick" (1940, which I
have reviewed) with W.C. Fields and "The Great Moment"). The Mayor of the town (played by Raymond Walburn, another regular in Preston Sturges comedies) is present, as he is running for re-election to give a speech as well. And just to make things interesting, Woodrow's ex, Libby (Ella Raines) is there and is now engaged to the Mayor's son, Forrest (Bill Edwards). Though Woodrow doesn't know of her engagement and she has decided to wait to tell him, against Forrest's wishes. Does she still love him?

From there everything escalates out of control. Monuments are going to be made and dedicated to him, the town has pitched in and paid off the family's mortgage, and there are those that even want him to run against for political office!

Sturges just keep raising the stakes but it all happens so effortlessly. Each scene takes events to a new level though it all seems so natural. Each turn makes sense. It all represents a perfect movie logic.

It is a comedy formula which is still used today. A character just digs a hole for themself by lying, putting themself further and further in trouble. But rarely is it done as wonderfully as it is done here and that is because Preston Sturges is at the helm. He is a comedy master. He knows comedy.

Though we also have to give credit to the performers. Eddie Bracken does a great job playing a guy who just can't keep up with the lies others are creating, all the while protesting, wanting ever so badly to come clean. But how can he? The situation keeps growing becoming harder and harder to tell the truth. It is not unlike the character he played in "Morgan's Creek". He stutters, fumbles and faints in one scene. It is Woody Allen-ish in its delivery.

And there are great jabs at the political system thrown in with the Mayor character (Sturges also took some jabs at politicians in his first movie, "The Great McGinty" (1940) as director). When the Mayor finds out Woodrow may run against him it causes a stir as his campaign manager (Al Bridge, yet another Struges' regular. The movie has a terrific supporting cast) tries to explain to him in this country people can vote for whomever they want. This causes the Mayor to respond "that's disgraceful!". We all like democracy when we know we are going to win.

The movie was made at the tail end of the war but it still has that patriotic war-time sentiment to it. There is a great display of community, people coming together to help each other. There is great pride shown for "our boys over-seas". Some may find the dialogue racist as characters use the term "japs". But this was how people spoke in those days. Does that mean it is right? No. But it is realistic. A sign of the times. I even remember a Laurel & Hardy comedy where the term was used. Not to mention the original "Batman" movie serial (which I reviewed) where the villain was called "an evil jap spy master".

"Hail the Conquering Hero" is a masterpiece. One of my favorite Preston Sturges comedies and one of the finest comedies of all time. If you are not familiar with Sturges it is a good place to start.