As questions of morality, ethics and honor in our society become ever more ambiguous, it might be salutary to see an American comedy of the highest order dealing with these troubling issues, made while World War II was daily in a different way bringing them vividly to the fore. During 1944, the inimitable Preston Sturges wrote and directed one of his most enduring works with these themes: HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO (available on DVD). It was the seventh picture in that most extraordinary run of eight consecutive movies over four years, all brilliantly conceived, written and directed by Sturges (here’s the Link to a piece I did on this very special picturemaker years ago).
Six Marines, survivors of the fierce battle for Guadalcanal, try to cheer up a very sad, hayfevered Marine reject (Eddie Bracken) by passing him off to his hometown as a genuine hero of Guadalcanal; they are so convincing that he wins his girl back, and the typically American small town wants Woodrow (that’s his name) for their mayor! Of course, the real point of the tale lies in how Woodrow finally deals with the truth.
The performances are all top-notch, with a flawless comic rhythm that is uniquely Sturges, which is why he kept using the same stock company of actors——they knew his beat—like a conductor with his own orchestra. This was especially important with Sturges, who created his scripts by improvising them out loud for his secretary to write down. That would have been something to see! His widow, Sandy, who served as his girl Friday for a while, told me he was one really hilarious performer.
Eddie Bracken, whom Sturges had already used earlier in the same year—-for the uproarious Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (see the review from my book, Movie of the Week)–gives a superbly real comic performance in which his pain and humiliation is both funny and palpably touching. He receives wonderful support from Sturges’ ever-present character-men par excellence, William Demarest, Raymond Walburn and Franklin Pangborn. As Woodrow’s girlfriend, the lovely Ella Raines, a Howard Hawks discovery of the year before (for Corvette K-225, which Hawks only produced), is notably un-cutesy and straight. Former boxing champion Freddie Steele is especially memorable as a bass-voiced Marine, whose favorite human is his mother and who holds the very image of Mother as sacred.
Although this is done partially for the comedy of a macho mama’s boy, the question still occurs: Where is the America of that sentiment? Indeed, what has happened to the cloistered small town of the country’s heartland? The innocent America, which Sturges’ half-European upbringing made him see from unconventional angles, is never sent up. On the contrary, one of the most lasting impressions of Hail the Conquering Hero is how much it makes you miss that America, which now only exists in older movies of this quality.