AFED #75: Hail the Conquering Hero (US, 1944); Dir. Preston Sturges

I have to admit I've never been completely sold on the work of Preston Sturges. It took me years to see the film regarded his masterpiece, Sullivan's Travels, but while it's by no means a bad film I couldn't quite understand the acclaim. Sturges followed it with screwball The Palm Beach Story and its a livelier affair with sophisticated humour that's aged well, although certainly not on a par with Bringing Up Baby.

So I wasn't sure how much to expect from Hail the Conquering Hero and perhaps for that reason came away pleasantly surprised. It's a deft little comedy; part satire on the (then) current fixation with war heroes and part Capraesque hokum of small town American life.

Woodrow Truesmith (Eddie Bracken), a marine discharged with chronic hay fever before he ever saw any action, encounters some serving marines in a bar in San Diego. He reveals to them that he's been hiding out there working in a shipyard rather than go home and tell his mother the truth.

When it transpires that the marines' Sergeant Heppelfinger (William Demarest) had served with Woodrow's marine father - who died in action the very day Woodrow was born - the older man takes pity and convinces Woodrow to embellish his story for his mother's sake. Woodrow and the marines travel back to his hometown, with Woodrow swapping his coat for the medal-adorned jacket of one of the others.

Yet no sooner do they arrive than the deception gets completely out of hand when it transpires the town has arranged a huge welcoming party for their 'war hero'. The more Woodrow attempts to extricate himself from the lie, the more Heppelfinger and the marines implore him to keep it up. Before long Woodrow finds himself being nominated to run for the town's Mayor and his situation grows increasingly desperate.

While hardly the most plausible story the laughs come from the absurdly effusive praise and accolades Woodrow finds heaped upon him; from the community paying off his mother's mortgage in thanks and even making plans to erect a statue in his honour. I suppose it's not a million miles from the truth in wartime middle America that heroes were proclaimed to festishistic proportions.

Eddie Bracken does an excellent job in portraying the hapless Woodrow, as does Demarest as the Machiavellian sergeant. There's also a romantic subplot in which Woodrow's childhood sweetheart Libby (Ella Raines) is about to marry another man after Woodrow broke up with her rather than admit his ignominious discharge.

At the denouement of course our antihero comes clean and admits the truth, leading to one of the phoniest endings imaginable. In the real world, confession or not, we'd expect him to run out of town, but Sturges instead goes with the message that public taste depends little on actual deeds so much as the whims of preference. If anything it needed a more caustic, biter-sweet finale, but it was a wartime film and the feelgood factor counted for a great deal.

I'm nit-picking though; this is basically a fun, breezy little number with a witty script well deserving of its Oscar nomination.


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