Written and Directed by Preston Sturges
Starring Eddie Bracken, Ella Raines, Raymond Walberg, William Demarest (of course), Franklin Pangborn, Georgia Caine, Freddie Steele, Al Bridge, Jimmy Conlon, Bill Edwards
Sturges’s next film after The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek was his last great one. Hail the Conquering Hero satirized hero worship, politics, sentimentality.
Woodrow Wilson Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) is sadly drinking in a bar when a group of marines come in, led by Sergeant Heffelfinger (William Demarest).The marines are broke, but Woodrow stand them to drinks, and he sadly tells them his story. His father was a hero in World War I, but Woodrow wasn’t allowed into the marines due to his hay fever, so he spent the war in a shipbuilding plant. Unable to tell his mother about his failure, he had concocted a series of letters which told her he was overseas and fighting the Japanese.
One of the marines take it upon himself to call his mother and tell her Woodrow is coming home a hero and Sergeant Heffelfinger, who served with Woodrow’s father in the Great War, pushes him to go through with the charade.This creates tension with his old girlfriend Libby (Ella Raines), who he broke it off with and who is now engaged to Forrest Noble (Bill Edwards).The town takes to him so much that they push him into running against Mayor Noble (Raymond Walburn). Woodrow, who never really wanted to go along with this at all, is pushed deeper and deeper into the issues from his impersonation.
The movie has some great scenes, notably when Woodrow tries to tell the crowd that he shouldn’t be mayor, and they react by praising his modesty.
Woody is a change from Bracken ‘s performance as Norval in the previous film. He’s not a buffoon but rather a man who is depressed that he couldn’t live up to his image, an honest man caught in a web of lies and who can’t get out. Ella Raines makes a good love interest and Bill Edwards is different from the usual portrayal of the the Guy Who’s Going to Lose the Girl: he’s a genuinely nice guy and probably would made a good husband to Libby if she didn’t love Woodrow.
William Demarest did his usual thing in a Sturges movie, but other members of the stock company also are memorable, with Franklin Pangborn as a harried organizer of the welcome and Raymond Walburn as the mayor. There’s also Freddy Steele* as Bugsy as one of the marines who had a mother fixation.The movie moves along to a strong – and quite reasonable – conclusion.
A fine film in all respects.
Alas, at this point, Sturges made a career mistake. Frustrated by Paramount’s interference and their tendency to hold back his films,** he joined up with Howard Hughes to form his own production company.*** It took three years before they produced anything.
In the meantime, Paramount released The Great Moment, which had been completed before Conquering Hero. Sturges seems to have ignored the message of Sullivan’s Travels: the film was a serious look at the development on anesthesia. Paramount foolishly promoted it as another wacky Sturges comedy, and it flopped badly.
Three years later, the partnership with Hughes finally bore fruit with The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. The concept was clever: Harold Lloyd played the character from his film The Freshman twenty years later and stuck in a boring job until he finally broke loose. It’s funny in spots, but not up to the standards that people were used to from Sturges. It only ran a short time. Hughes later recut it and rereleased that version as Mad Wednesday.
Unable to work with Hughes, Sturges dissolved the partnership and joined Fox for Unfaithfully Yours about a classical conductor who plotted revenge to the tune of various composers. The film was another flop and coupled with the disaster of Diddlebock put Sturges’s career in jeopardy. His final Hollywood effort, The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend and a total disaster and he went to work in France, directing only one movie after that, Les carnets de Major Thompson (The French They Are a Funny Race). It flopped, too.He died in 1959.
Sturges flops have been rediscovered and their critical consensus has improved over the years, and his successes are still well regarded – for good reason. They hold up surprisingly well. He is one of the top names of film comedy of his era and deserves recognition beyond film buffs.
* A former middleweight boxing champion who turned to acting
**Miracle was held back for two years, and an early film, The Great Moment, was also slow to the theaters.
***Leading him to be one of the few to be credited as writer, director, and producer.