Hail the Conquering Hero (DVD Review)9 May, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Stars Eddie Bracken, Ella Raines, William Demarest, Raymond Walburn.
Asking six different people their favorite Preston Sturges movie will engender at least four different answers, even though Sturges’ explosive directorial career, which didn’t begin until 1940, either did or didn’t fall into permanent fizzle right after this picture. In general terms, it inarguably did, but the precise answer to that question hinges on one’s opinion of 1948’s beloved-by-some Unfaithfully Yours — which, whatever else it is or isn’t, is definitely not about the Marine Corp.
Hail the Conquering Hero is — and as the son of a World War II Marine drill sergeant who also got called back into service during the Korean War, I am possibly prejudiced in its favor. And yet, I’m certain it would still be my personal pick in any circumstance due to the power of Eddie Bracken’s performance (yes, Eddie Bracken); its expert skewering of slippery politicians (a Sturges specialty), the best-ever showcase for William Demarest’s brand of gruffness this side of Sturges’ preceding The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; and, for the time, some incredible satirizing of wartime hero worship (though not of the Marines) — even though the writer-director had to blunt the material just a smidgen, so that the end result plays a little like a Sturges-Capra hybrid. For personal bonus points, throw in my crush on Ella Raines from this period; the very same year, Raines also became one of the three or four best women co-stars John Wayne ever had playing the tomboy hellion from Tall in the Saddle (babe-dom camouflaged in jeans long before it became an everyday occurrence).
In a tie with Creek (also with Bracken), Hero will always be the definitive 4-F movie. The actor’s character here — son of fallen World War I Marine “Hinky Dinky” Truesmith — has been mustered out of the Corp with chronic hay fever and is hiding out in a San Diego shipyard because he’s ashamed to face his mother, former girlfriend (Raines) and the rest of his small town. Forever steeped in Corps lore, he treats a half-dozen broke Marines to beers and sandwiches, including Sarge Demarest. Against his wishes and certainly intentions, the sergeant (who saw the senior Truesmith fall in the previous World War) concocts a thoroughly cockamamie scheme to palm off his old friend’s son as a now discharged war hero so the kid can see his mother.
Matters go awry immediately with the mad train-station welcoming celebration (pity prissy organizer Franklin Pangborn) in which about 57 different bands play about 57 different compositions at the same time. Then, there’s the burning of his elderly mother’s mortgage in a public ceremony at church. Then the romantic wavering of his ex, who is now engaged to the dullard son of the clueless town mayor (a dead-on Raymond Walburn) — followed by young Truesmith’s “drafting” by a concerned citizen’s group to run against this dope. To me, there is no question that un-nominated Bracken should have been a major Oscar contender in that great movie year 1944. Very few actors could have conveyed the degree of abject mortification Hero’s hero is made to suffer, and the story’s climax centers on the greatest scene of public humiliation I’ve ever seen on screen.
Tired of battling comically uncomprehending suits and gone from home studio Paramount by the time the film opened to great acclaim, Sturges said he thought Hero had the “least wrong” with it in terms of his career output (which, of course, included The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story and Morgan's Creek, just for the cream). The writer-director’s overlapping dialogue ensures a blistering pace, and Raines — whom studio cretins wanted to replace, launching a battle with Sturges that probably didn’t help his waning Paramount fortunes — is a wonderful leveling influence on 100 minutes of 98% mayhem (though I would argue that the final shot has real emotional clout).
Until now, Hero has been available only in a supreme $60 Universal box set of the Sturges-directed Paramounts excluding Morgan’s Creek — which was never sold to MCA when Paramount moronically unloaded its 1929-49 holdings in the late 1950s (MC was considered too racy for TV showings until the early 1970s). Hero has ranked way, way up there on my list of favorite American movies since I first saw it age 12 in January, 1960, and when it comes to the definitive Marine Corp movies, you start with this, Sands of Iwo Jima (for its recruiting poster lore) and Full Metal Jacket (the only movie in his adult life that my father ever paid to see more than once). Then there’s everything else.