Monday, November 15, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Hail the Conquering Hero" (1944)

"Hail the Conquering Hero" is widely praised as one of Preston Sturges' best films, and it earned an Oscar nomination for its screenplay. But I found it tedious and mawkish -- the 1944 equivalent of a dopey sitcom.

Eddie Bracken -- who bore a startling resemblance to Donald O'Connor, another song-and-dance man who broke into movies -- plays Woodrow Truesmith, a Marine Corp washout who impersonates a war hero when he returns to his idyllic hometown.

It's one of those stories built on a lie, and somehow the lie keeps getting repeated and embellished, despite the perpetrator's best efforts to tell the truth. That's what I meant with the sitcom comparison: An entire plot built around a misunderstanding that could be solved with a few words of dialogue, but somehow the chance never presents itself.

Now think about that. How often has a misunderstanding reached such epic proportions in your own life? And even if it did, would you wait hours and days to correct it? Even if the notion didn't strain credulity, it's an overused comedy device.

The set-up is Woodrow buys some beers for a group of six destitute Marines. They're led by Sgt. Heppelfinger (William Demarest), a crotchety older soldier. They thank him for the drinks, and learn Woodrow's tale: The son of a Medal of Honor-winning Marine, he was bounced from the service after one month for chronic hay fever.

When Bugsy (boxer Freddie Steele, in his first screen role), the shell-shocked, slightly scary member of the group, learns that Woodrow has been lying to his mother for the past year, having a buddy send her letters from overseas so she'll think he's fighting in the war, he insists that Woodrow board the next train home.

The hi jinx continue from there. The sarge insists Woodrow put on one of their uniforms so his mother will be none the wiser. But she tells the whole town her son is returning a hero. When the group sees hundreds of people assembled at the train station to greet Woodrow, they hastily pin some of their medals on his chest, too.

It's off to the races from there. There's loud speeches, four marching bands (playing the title song, of course) and a contingent of local politicians looking to recruit Woodrow to run for mayor against the self-aggrandizing incumbent, Everett Noble (Raymond Walburn). Walburn has perhaps the only consistently funny role in the movie, since he's always either in the midst of giving a blowhard speech or composing his next one.

Woodrow had a girl, too: Libby, played by Ella Rain es. He broke it off with her during his year away, during which time she became engaged to the mayor's son, Forrest (Bill Edwards). She reasons that Forrest is tall, handsome, rich and has many prospects -- in other words, everything a girl could wish for. He is the jealous type, though, and soon it becomes clear he has good reason to be.

Even as Woodrow struggles to tell somebody that he's a phony, Libby keeps finding excuses not to tell him about her engagement. It all builds to a big finale in which they reunite, of course.

Sturges made a lot of great, smart comedies. But for me, "Hail the Conquering Hero" is false gold.

1.5 stars out of four

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