Sunday, February 28, 2021

Hail the Conquering Hero

Hail the Conquering Hero
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
IMDB Entry

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.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

Miracle of Morgan's Creek

Written and Directed by
Preston Sturges
Starring Eddie Bracken, Betty Hutton, Diana Lynn, William Demarest, Brian Donlevy, Akim Tamaroff
IMDB Entry

Sturges’s next film is my favorite, a glorious combination of bawdiness and slapstick. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is one of the greatest of Hollywood comedies.

The film starts out with a scene in the Governor’s office, where McGinty (Brian Donlevy) and the Boss (Akim Tamaroff)* receive a phone call about a crisis in the town of Morgan’s Creek. Then we go back nine months, where Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) decides to go out partying with a group of soldiers who are shipping out. She wakes up the next day with a crazy story she tells to her sister, Emmy (Diana Lynn): that she met a soldier named “Ratzkywatzky or Zitzkywitzky” and, seriously drunk, they decided to get married -- under assumed names, of course. They even decided to use a cigar band for the ring!  Funny stuff until Trudy discovers a cigar band on the ring finger of her left hand.

Soon she discovers she’s pregnant.

Of course, there is no evidence of the marriage and a single mother in 1942 could only have disgrace in her future. Luckily, there is an option: Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), who has been in love with her for years at a distance, is the perfect fall guy. Norval is clumsy and awkward, and do anything for Trudy. It is complicated by Trudy’s father, Constable Kockenlocker (William Demarest), who complicates the matter when trying to help.

This was pretty bawdy stuff for the time. I note  that Trudy had to be married before getting pregnant, undoubtedly because the censors would wouldn’t allow anything else. There was also the name “Kockenlocker,” which is spoken an inordinate amount of times (in one scene with him, Norval ends every sentence with “Constable Kockenlocker”). It certainly hints at something fairly obscene. Sturges always tried to stretch the bounds of what the Hayes Office allowed, and this was a particularly edgy example.

Eddie Bracken was not a major star when cast in the role of Norval. He plays the stuttering and slightly stupid nice guy to perfection and makes the movie work. Betty Hutton was something of a sex symbol but shows herself an adept comedienne as the sweet but slightly dumb Trudy. And contrasting her is Diana Lynn’s more sardonic sister.

But the real delight is William Demarest. He was always a treat in Sturges, but this was his biggest role so far, and his bluster and crustiness (with a heart of gold beneath) is wonderful from start to finish.

A favorite scene of mine is where Constable Kockenlocker is trying to get Norval to break out of  his jail without being obvious about it. So you have him saying something like, "If you take the keys from my belt, you can unlock yourself when I'm looking," only to have Norval reply, "Oh, I'd never do that, Constable Kockenlocker." Demarest's frustration is worth the price of the movie.

The movie was a massive success, Paramount’s top-grossing film of the year.

*Yes, from Sturges’s The Great McGinty. This is one of the few times where characters reprised their roles in a movie that wasn’t actually a sequel.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Palm Beach Story

The Palm Beach Story

Written and Directed by
Preston Sturges
Starring Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Mary Astor, Rudy Vallee, Sig Arno, William Demarest, Robert Dudley
IMDB Entry

After Sullivan’s Travels, Sturges dropped the obvious social commentary and went back to straight comedy. The Palm Beach Story is a return to pure screwball comedy, with some themes that snuck by the Hayes office.

Tom (Joel McCrea) and Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) are a couple whose marriage is falling apart due to financial stress. Gerry decides that the way to relieve it is to get a divorced, so after getting some money from the Wienie King, she takes a train down to Palm Beach. But on the trip down, she meets millionaire John. D. Hackensacker (Rudy Vallee) and sets her sights of marrying him after she’s free. She then expects to use the money to help out Tom, who needs it to finance a new invention. Tom, learning about her plan to divorce, flies down to Palm Beach to stop her, and ends up involved with Hackensaker’s sister the Princess Centimilla, an oft-married femme fatale. Also involved in the trail trip is the Ale and Quail club, who are going down to Palm Beach to shoot (and to drink ale).

The plot is complicated, with confusion over who’s  pretending to be who, with a bizarre twist at the end that cuts through all the problems.

It’s mostly Colbert’s movie and she shows her usual comic gift.* McCrea is fine, but is overshadowed by the other character actors around him. Mary Astor has film immortality from The Maltese Falcon, and in this case that mercurial personality is perfect for the part. Rudy Vallee was considered a washed-up crooner; the part gave him a new  lease on his career. And, of course, the Sturges stock company was there, headed by his favorite, William Demarest as one member of the Ale and Quail Club.

The Ale and Quail Club
The censors found a lot to object to in the early drafts of the script, most notably the notion of divorce,** the many marriage of Centimilla (they cut down a few), and the idea of a married woman romancing Hackensacker. But Sturges made some cuts to get the movie films, and always had a way of getting past the censors when he wanted to.

The return to comedy was a success and The Palm Beach Story is a classic of screwball  comedy.

*There are echoes of her role in It Happened One Night.

**It was rare for there to be any sign of divorce in movies, and in comedies the divorcing couple always ended up back together at the end. The first portrayal of a divorced woman who didn’t go back to her ex, and who managed to make a successful life afterward was probably in Miracle of 34th Street, where Doris Walker has successfully moved on.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Sullivan’s Travels

Sullivan's Travels
Written and Directed by
Preston Sturges
Starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake
IMDB Entry

By 1941, Preston Sturges was now a big enough name director to be featured in film trailers, but seemed to be considered less important because he filmed comedies. His next film, Sullivan’s Travels, was clearly an answer to that criticism, and to comment on Hollywood’s penchant for undervaluing comedy.

The movie is about John L.Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a Hollywood director who yearns to tackle serious subjects. When his next project, a serious look at poverty in American called O Brother, Where Art Thou* is turned down, Sullivan, who has never actually been poor, decides to go of on his own as a hobo in order to see real life.  On the way, he joins up with a woman (Veronica Lake) who is sympathetic to his “plight,” but who becomes furious when she realizes he is very well off.

Sullivan starts out again. His identification is stolen and he ends up in a prison farm, looking for a way to straighten anything out.

McCrea handles the comedy well, especially since the character as egotistical and somewhat naïve.

Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea

Veronica Lake was a 40s phenomenon, a major star mostly due to her hairstyle, a long lock that fell down over her right eye. Sullivan’s Travels was one of her several successes of the time. But her career started collapsing after only a few years. She cut off the long hair at the request of the Defense Department, since women workers copying the style were getting it caught in machinery. She was less distinctive without it, and she had already developed a reputation of being difficult to work with. A drinking problem added to her fall. Her later years had few successes and she ended up leaving Hollywood, even spending some time working as a waitress.

The movie didn’t do as well as Sturges’s earlier ones. It got some good critical buzz, but the seriousness of the theme worked against it.** It also was

*That’s where the George Clooney movie gets its title.

**Ironic given the fact that the film was a complaint against too much seriousness. But much of the film shows people in poverty and the big scene takes place in a theater filled with prisoners. Of special note was that one scene portrayed a Black church and portrayed Black parishioners respectfully. It’s a sad commentary on Hollywood values of the time that this was enough to get a commendation from the NAACP