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Hail the Conquering Hero
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Hail the Conquering Hero

Preston Sturges' eighth and final film for Paramount, Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) is a satire on mindless hero-worship, small-town politicians, and something we might call "Mom-ism," the almost idolatrous reverence that Americans have for the institution of Motherhood. Of all his films, Sturges called Hail the Conquering Hero "the one with the least wrong with it," which says a lot considering its competition. But high praise is indeed merited, for it is in this film that Sturges most adeptly handles his customary alteration of comedic and sentimental scenes.

Hail the Conquering Hero was small in scale and Sturges designed it so that it could be filmed on the sets left over from The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944), released the same year. Sturges had been so impressed with Eddie Bracken's work in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, that he cast him in a similar role for Hail the Conquering Hero. This time, however, Bracken would not have to share the stage (and be upstaged) by his frequent co-star, Betty Hutton. Bracken plays Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, the sickly son of a Marine hero whose image Bracken could never hope to live up to (Bracken's mother keeps a shrine to her husband prominently displayed in her home). When he is dismissed from the service due to his chronic hay fever, Bracken is so ashamed that he decides not to return home. Instead he gets a job in a shipyard and has friends send his mother and girlfriend letters from the Pacific so they will think he is still away fighting. When he meets some real war heroes, just back from Guadalcanal, Bracken mistakenly tells them his whole sad story. Unfortunately, one of the Marines, Bugsy (brilliantly played by Freddie Steele), is the victim of both shell shock and a mother complex. Bugsy's refrain throughout the picture is, "You shouldn't do that to your mother." And so to set things right by Mom, Bugsy calls Mrs. Truesmith (Georgia Caine), and tells her that her son is a war hero and will soon be home. Woodrow's hay fever becomes jungle fever and soon he is stuck playing a hero.

As was customary with such a picture, the War Department reviewed the script and asked for some revisions, mostly pertaining to depictions of servicemen. But Sturges' script was far from seditious and the revisions he was forced to make were minor. Even with such a review, Sturges managed to make fun of the ease with which military heroes were made. As the Mayor comments: "Why if this war continues, you won't be able to swing a cat without hitting two heroes." Like all of Sturges' films, Hail the Conquering Hero is maniacally fast-paced with overlapping dialogue and punch-lines that come so fast you'll miss one if you laugh too hard. According to Monty Python member and director, Terry Jones: "There's not a dud scene or a spare moment. It's like a wonderful piece of clockwork - all the scene has been set, the back stories told, the characters established while Woodrow is on the train home. Once he steps off it, the rapid series of events toboggan towards their climax with wondrous momentum."

As usual, Sturges employs his unofficial troupe of oddball character actors, most notably William Demarest, Jimmy Conlin, Chester Conklin and Raymond Walburn. Demarest appeared in all eight of Sturges' Paramount films, and in each, his bug-eyed irascible character was a standout. But Sturges' reliance on bit players brought him into repeated conflict with the studio, which asked him to hire some new talent. "I always replied that these little players who had contributed so much to my first hits had a moral right to work in my subsequent pictures. I guess Paramount was glad to be rid of me eventually, as no one there ever understood a word I said."

Sturges' break with Paramount was, in part, the result of the writer-director's continual conflict with Paramount boss Buddy DeSylva. According to Sturges, the final battle began when DeSylva saw some early rushes of Hail the Conquering Hero and objected to the casting of newcomer Ella Raines as Bracken's love interest. DeSylva thought that Raines didn't look enough like a small-time girl and that her acting was wooden. In addition, Raines was not enough of a box-office draw. With a cast of Bracken, Demarest and Raines, the studio had no star power with which to sell the film. The only draw was that Sturges made it, and despite his recent string of hits, Sturges was no Cecil B. DeMille, Paramount's top director whose name alone could bring patrons to the theaters. DeSylva demanded that Sturges replace Raines with a better-known actress, but Sturges refused. As Sturges recalls: "I said that had Buddy been there and objected to her casting at its inception, I would of course have agreed. But to have her thrown off the picture after she had been announced for the part and had started shooting, with all the publicity that engendered, would ruin her career. It seems very unimportant now whether she was kept in or thrown out. It seemed very important then. I had read Cervantes. I should have known about tilting at windmills." (That same year saw Raines in memorable roles in both the Robert Siodmak thriller Phantom Lady [1944] and opposite John Wayne in Tall in the Saddle [1944], but her film career proved short-lived and she retired in 1957.)

Sturges' contract with Paramount was over before the film was completely edited but Sturges took his leave and monitored the film's progress from afar. DeSylva made his own cuts to the picture, but after The Miracle of Morgan's Creek was released in January and became a box-office smash, DeSylva reluctantly accepted Sturges' offer to come back to Paramount (without pay!) and once again take charge. He reshot some additional scenes, wrote a new ending and restored the film to its original state. DeSylva let Sturges' efforts stand and Hail the Conquering Hero was released in August of 1944 to uniformly excellent reviews. In the New York Times, Bosley Crowther declared the movie to be "one of the wisest ever to burst from a big-time studio." Sturges was pleasantly surprised by the reviews and wrote that, "It proves that a good story can lick its weight in stars and pomposity any day."

Sturges was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, which put him in competition with himself as his script for The Miracle of Morgan's Creek was also nominated in the same category. In the event, neither of Sturges' efforts was rewarded and the statue went home with Lamar Trotti for his biopic, Wilson (1944). Sturges also wrote an ironic song for the film, "Home to the Arms of Mother," which he sold to Paramount for one dollar.

Bracken gives the performance of his career as Woodrow and his relationship with Sturges was so good that it seems the director even allowed Bracken to make some directorial suggestions. According to Bracken, the speech where Woodrow finally confesses the charade was originally intended by Sturges to be faster than what appears in the film. "You know, his pictures go snap, snap, snap, as fast as you can follow them. That's the way he thought a particular speech should go, too. But I thought it was too good a speech for that. It should be slow and tender with time to get it over. So we shot it both ways, his and mine. It's mine that's in the picture."

Producer/Director/Screenplay: Preston Sturges
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Editing: Stuart Gilmore
Music: Werner R. Heymann
Art Direction: Haldane Douglas, Hans Dreier
Cast: Eddie Bracken (Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith), Ella Raines (Libby), Raymond Walburn (Mayor Everett D. Noble), William Demarest (Sergeant Heppelfinger), Franklin Pangborn (Committee Chairman), Elizabeth Patterson (Libby's Aunt), Jimmy Conlin (Judge Dennis), Georgia Caine (Mrs. Truesmith), Freddie Steele (Bugsy).

By Mark Frankel