Thursday 18 March 2010

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

Director: Preston Sturges
Star: Eddie Bracken
In 1944 Preston Sturges was on such a roll it's hard to come up with its equal anywhere else. I haven't yet seen his 1940 debut, The Great McGinty, but I've seen his next five films and there isn't a dud among them. Most writers or directors would happily kill for one title like Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story or Miracle of Morgan's Creek, but Sturges wrote and directed all five in five years, and then followed up with this one. With a mere twelve films to his name as a director he was hardly prolific, taking a while to move up first from being a writer to a writer/director but once he got there his track record is beyond belief: all but one of those twelve came within the single decade of the forties. OK, he had regulars like Raymond Walburn, William Demarest and Franklin Pangborn and those names would never have hurt any filmmaker but these films don't let up even when they're not on screen.

Demarest is Sgt Julius Heppelfinger, a marine sergeant with more experience than can comfortably be imagined, with ribbons across his chest and with every reason to be called a hero. However he isn't the hero of the title because this isn't a patriotic war film, it's a Preston Sturges comedy, which means that we're about to watch another American sacred cow take a tumble, this time the concept of heroism. When he and five fellow marines with only 15c between them walk into a bar and order a single beer, they run across the real title character, Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, because he's the depressed guy at the end of the bar who buys them all a round. He's a marine too, or at least he was, and it's the fact that he isn't any more that's why he's depressed and why we have a story.

You see his dad was a marine, a winner of the Congressional medal of honour who was killed in action the day he was born, so all he's ever wanted to do was be a marine too. Everything in his life merely led to the moment when he became a marine, to walk in the footsteps of his hero father, but life has a habit of kicking us in the nuts when we least expect it and so when it finally happened, it lasted for a mere month. They discharged him on medical grounds due to chronic hayfever. He's so in shock that he hasn't even gone home in a whole year because he has no idea what to tell his mother. He's more like a mouse than a marine, trying to work out what he's going to do next by climbing into a bottle, especially when the singer in The Dog Watch starts on Home to the Arms of Mother.

His unwanted salvation comes through Heppelfinger and his men, especially when Heppelfinger realises that Truesmith's dad was his sergeant in the last war and he was there when he died. A private called Bugsy, who has no mother and really wishes he did have, finds out where he's from and promptly rings Mrs Truesmith, easing the impact by telling her that her boy is a Guadalcanal veteran on a medical discharge and he's coming home. It's just one little lie to help the boy out, before dragging him to the phone, but you know how slippery a slope that is. After Woodrow flusters around trying to be modest and deny everything without calling the man a liar, the Sarge jumps in and makes it even worse.

Next thing you know all seven of them are on the train to Oakridge with one of the Sarge's medals pinned to his chest, the plan being to sneak him home to mother and be done with it. The catch is that these marines did their job a little too well. The Oakridge station is packed with well wishers, four bands, the mayor, a reception committee, a key to the city, the works. OK, part of it is that there's an election for mayor going on but that's only part of it. Just imagine all the other things that could go wrong to help dig this whole a little deeper and they'll be here too along with a few more than you haven't thought of yet. When Heppelfinger and his marines see four bands through the train window they decide that one medal isn't enough and give him the whole bunch. It just goes on, layer after layer.

Did I mention that his girl Libby has become engaged to someone else since he left, someone who couldn't get into the forces himself because he had chronic hayfever? And that he'd asked her to do so by mail because he was too ashamed to come home to her? Schultz's Market starts delivering free food to help out. The local priest burns their mortgage in church because the townsfolk have bought it out in tribute to the 'Home of Heroes'. The reception committee announces a little monument to be paid for by public subscription, one called Like Father Like Son that has him shaking hands with his dad. They even want him to stand for mayor, 'an honest man who will tell the truth about what it's all about.' Doc Bissell has everything except popularity, so he's his party's way to topple the incumbent mayor, Everett J Noble. Oh, and that guy Libby is engaged to? Noble's son. She's Evvy Noble's secretary too.

Woodrow Truesmith is played by Eddie Bracken, who was also the hero of the previous Preston Sturges movie, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. He's exactly the right actor for the part, utterly honest but utterly naive, saying precisely the wrong thing at precisely the right time but in such a way that everyone around him thinks it's precisely the right thing. It's clever writing but Bracken nails the everyman vibe and he's as believable as could be. 'Everybody's been so kind,' says Mrs Truesmith while Woodrow, more and more nervous with every moment, tries to hide. He's no coward but he's steamrolled throughout and he flusters around trying to find a way out only to find himself deeper in that hole with every passing moment. 'So much can happen in a day!' he says, and he isn't exaggerating.

The usual Sturges names are as great as they always were. William Demarest is Sgt Heppelfinger, who constantly has to explain why what they're doing now is morally OK. They're not telling lies, they're telling the truth just with the names changed to protect military secrets. They should have burned his mother's mortgage anyway when his father died. There are six heroes there already, they're just throwing in another one for good luck. Franklin Pangborn is the chairman of the welcome committee who is confounded by nobody doing a thing he wants, even when he blows his whistle. Raymond Walburn is the mayor, Everett D Noble, as blustery and florid as he ever was. Harry Hayden and Jimmy Conlin are up there with them and Esther Howard is a joy as Noble's wife, who nonetheless seems to be Woodrow's biggest fan.

Preston Sturges is the real star though, Oscar nominated for this script but competing with himself, for The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. He had a knack of writing fast paced scripts packed with joyous dialogue where almost every line is a gag in itself, a setup for a new gag or reinforcement for an old one. The jokes are so layered that by the time you stop laughing at one you find yourself laughing at three more. Yet behind it all is a serious point, a moral story with depth and meaning, that only makes the comedy darker if we choose to pay attention. Blind hero worship is dangerous, as we discover in the end, and just as Woodrow digs his own hole, so does almost everyone else in the film. He's honest with them throughout, they just refuse to hear what he's telling them.

Sturges's real talent was to attack quintessentially American ideas and rip them asunder in ways that make us laugh, while never being anything less than patriotic in the process. Whether it be instant riches, glamour, millionaires, stardom or as here, heroes, he deflated them all while restoring the original humanity behind it. Woodrow Truesmith is not the hero he's made out to be but circumstances prove that he's a hero nonetheless. There are hints here dotted throughout the dialogue about buying war bonds, working at night if you have to, trusting in the marines. Yet the messages are never hammered home, they're dangled for us to take if we want to. More than anything the film suggests that we should think, about what we believe and why we believe. That's a heck of a lesson to throw into a wartime comedy.

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