18 June 2009

Hail! Hail! The Gang's All Here!

What was Director/Writer Preston Sturges trying to say with his 1944 film, Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)?

Was he commenting on the vagaries of hero worship?

Was he good naturedly poking fun at democracy?

Was he raising a toast to the Marines Corps?

Was he satirizing small town America?

Was he looking at honesty and when it is and isn't the best policy?

Or was he just making a funny film?

Probably all of the above and much more. It's the more I'd like to go on a brief digression about.

Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) never wanted anything more out of life than to be a marine, as his father and grandfather before him. To be a marine was not just to serve one's country but to be a part of something. Perhaps the ultimate state of being one of the guys.

Humans, and particularly men, are pack animals. Most of us like to belong to a group, or for that matter, several groups. Athletic teams, criminal gangs, Boy Scout troops, unions, choirs, churches, the possibilities are endless. Through groups we find identity, solidarity and security. Pretty basic human needs is all.

The Marines in war time provide the ultimate group setting. In addition to the tradition, the uniforms the clearly defined roles, one's life literally depends on adherence to the group structure. The challenge is not just about winning or losing, but about staying alive. (Throughout history countries have been able to amass huge volunteer armies because of the allure of the group setting and the glamorization of being part of a fighting force.) For a man like Woodrow, who has grown up worshiping at the altar of the marines, being in the corps is not just intoxicating, but something coursing through his veins.

But after one month in corps, Woodrow gets the heave ho because of hay fever. And while a world war is raging.

It's no wonder that when the movie begins we see him at the end of a bar brooding into his beer.

I hope you know the story of the film. That Woodrow meets, in that very bar, a group of marines, one of whom served with his dad and saw him fall in battle -- on the very day Woodrow was born no less. He buys the boys a few rounds and before you know it they cook up a scheme to escort him to his hometown as a marine and a decorated one at that.

If Woodrow were a lesser man he'd have gone along with the plan from the get go and proudly participated in the hoopla that greeted him at the train station and continued for the next two days. It's an early clue into Woodrow's character that he fights tooth and nail all the way down the line, not wanting any part of ill gotten glory. But the Marines -- semper fidelis -- want him to get all that isn't coming to him for the sake of that most American of institutions, Mom.

Why the next thing you know some of the town's elders have Woodrow running for mayor. This later occasions one of the film's great lines: "Politics is a very peculiar thing, Woodrow. If they want you, they want you. They don't need reasons anymore... they find their own reasons. It's just like when a girl wants a man."

Woodrow ultimately finds happiness and is embraced by his town. But surely he must be torn. On the one hand he has won over his marine benefactors who grow to admire his courage and integrity. But he must watch them leave. He's a hero in town, all right, but he's in the town to stay and they're off to faraway battlefields. They've a job to do. Together.

Hail the Conquering Hero came at the end of Sturges' brief but extraordinary run of seven films in four years, six of which were classics. (See my post on Sturges from last Summer for more.) As a director he made few films before or after, and even less of any consequence. This film is worth mentioning in the same breath as other Sturges classics like Sullivan's Travels (1941) and The Lady Eve (1941).

Bracken, who also appeared for Sturges in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) is perfect for Woodrow. He doesn't look the part of a hero (he shouldn't) but plays it (he should). Ella Raines who had a brief and otherwise undistinguished career, is able enough as Woodrow's on again off again fiance. The instantly forgettable Bill Edwards was made for the role of Forrest, the hunky romantic rival who's got the personality of wet cardboard. (It's really an under appreciated movie staple that continues onto this day. The poor sap who vies with the film's protagonist for "the girl". Ralph Bellamy elevated the role to an art form.)

What really makes Hail shine is Sturges' stock company of actors. Bill Demarest was never better than he was in this film as Sergeant Julius Hepplefinger. And this is also as good a performance as you'll ever see from Franklin Pangborn whose character is listed simply as, Committee Chairman. Demarest is all fast talking, conniving bluster while Pangborn takes care of the fluster. Watch the poor man try to coordinate the hero's reception and later his political rallies. It's watching a fuss budget try to coordinate a riot.

Demarest and Pangborn even share some screen time and its hilarious. Demarest is relating made up stories from the war to an audience with Pangborn sitting beside him going through all manner of rapt facial gymnastics.

Hail the Conquering Hero is one of those rare films that work on so many levels and is funny at each. Every time I watch it I find something else. Folks, that's the sign of a good film.

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