Our final Preston Sturges film of the week with Hail the Conquering Hero, one of two Sturges films released in the same year, both starring Eddie Bracken (the other being The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek). Unlike yesterday’s Great McGinty, Hail the Conquering Hero blends Sturges’ romantic ideals of patriotism, honesty, and forthrightness with a madcap comedy of errors working as political satire.
Woodrow Truesmith (Bracken) has a lot to live up to; his father was a decorated war hero in WWI, while Woodrow receives a medical discharge because of chronic hayfever. Hiding out from his family and loved ones in San Diego, Woodrow runs into a group of Marines, recently returned from the Battle of Guadalcanal, who feel for the man’s plight, dress him up as a military hero and go home with him. Unfortunately, a deception just meant for his mother, ends up inspiring Woodrow’s entire town to celebrate him and elect him mayor.
Watching Hail the Conquering Hero after The Great McGinty illustrates Sturges’ increasing command of the camera from his mundane debut. I might be using the word mundane harshly in McGinty’s case, but the point is that by the time of Hail the Conquering Hero – containing many similar plot points as the previous film – Sturges smoothed out all the kinks as a screenwriter and director. Where McGinty’s story is bleak, Hail brims with Sturges’ optimism, unsurprising considering this came at the tail end of the war. Sturges’ war comedies have a sharp wit and some saucy comedy (this isn’t nearly as risque as Morgan’s Creek), while also emphasizing comradeship, family, and celebrating life’s little things.
Woodrow Truesmith is a bit of unwitting cad, called out by one of the soldiers for allowing his mother to believe he’s been in danger for months when he’s really safe stateside. Unfortunately, the stigma against men who either didn’t serve or, for whatever reason, were discharged before going over, sticks. Woodrow’s father is a legend, and although Woodrow can’t be faulted for his medical condition, he knows people will brand him a coward. Without branding the military villains, Sturges uses Woodrow’s story as a means of indicating that it is often the courage of taking that first step and enlisting at all, that brings its own type of heroism.
Similar to McGinty, Woodrow invitation into the mayoral race sets up a discussion about political corruption, but that’s far from the focal point like it was in the previous film. The mounting pressure of all the responsibility upends Woodrow; he believes himself to be just another fraud running for office. In a way, he’s much more like Jimmy Stewart’s character in Mr. Smith than Brian Donlevy was.
Much like Miracle at Morgan’s Creek, Sturges votes in favor of smaller, B-level actors than the A-list stars he worked with in Palm Beach Story or Sullivan’s Travels. Bracken’s owl-face and everyman nature makes him a great exhibitor of the average male; and while he isn’t overly reliant on wacky facial expressions and slapstick, there are funny moments of him effecting an exasperated mien through his stutter and falsetto. He’s complimented by a host of character veterans in Sturges’ stable, particularly William Demarest. Demarest’s past roles haven’t particularly warranted my attention, but as Sgt. Hepplefinger, he’s the right mix of Woodrow’s father – tough, commanding…the way we’d perceive him to be – and heartwarming. He’s trying to make Woodrow a man as well as prop him up to be a hero (two things not mutually exclusive). The other Marines all get a moment to shine; the one who continually chastises Woodrow for how he treats his mother remains effective the several times its implemented.
This was my first time watching Hail the Conquering Hero and it’s a great way to end our tribute to Sturges, as well as an unintentionally great entry into the 4th of July holiday. I recommend watching this alongside Bracken’s other Sturges comedy, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. He’s an underrated actor with impeccable comedic timing.
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