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With: Eddie Bracken, Ella Raines, Raymond Walburn, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Elizabeth Patterson, Georgia Caine, Al Bridge, Freddie Steele, Bill Edwards, Harry Hayden, Jimmy Conlin, Jimmie Dundee, Chester Conklin, Esther Howard, Arthur Hoyt, Robert Warwick, Torben Meyer, Jack Norton, Paul Porcasi
Written by: Preston Sturges
Directed by: Preston Sturges
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 101
Date: 08/09/1944

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The War at Home

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Written and directed by Preston Sturges, Hail the Conquering Hero starts out slow, with a forlorn Woodow (Eddie Bracken) sitting at a bar. A singer haunts the room with a weepy ballad. A group of penniless Marines come in, and he buys them a round of beers. The soldiers ask Woodrow what his problem is. It turns out he was discharged from the Marines for chronic hayfever. He's been lying to his mother that he's been overseas, but really he's been working in a shipyard. One of the Marines, who has a strange "mother" fixation arranges a homecoming for Woodrow.

From there, the movie picks up a lightning pace and never slows down, except for some unusual patriotic passages -- just a few moments here and there lingering on the image of a flag, or the story of some fallen Marine. It's hard to believe Sturges could be patriotic, and it's hard to take these passages seriously. But they're over soon enough, and the story continues.

Woodrow is greeted by the entire town, four brass bands, and the mayor. The mayor's son, Forrest, who was also discharged because of hay fever, is engaged to Libby (Ella Raines), who was Woodrow's former flame. Of course, they're still in love, but Woodrow doesn't want her to be involved with a zero, so he's lied to her and told her he's met someone new. This homecoming sequence is supercharged. It cuts back and forth between shots of the bands, the mayor, Woodrow's mom, Libby and Forrest, and Woodrow and the soldiers so fast that it leaves conversations hanging and unfinished. It's an incredible effect.

The rest of the movie takes place over the next 24 hours as the townspeople try to convince Woodrow to run for mayor. Sturges moves it along fast, leaving no stone unturned, and his brilliant, crisp dialogue tingles.

Sturges wrote many screenplays in the 30's, but it's not until he began directing them himself in 1940 that they became classics. During the five years from 1940 to 1944, he made seven bona-fide comedy gems that are still alive and funny today. Sturges' great weakness was his casting. His favorite leads, Eddie Bracken and Joel McCrea do not ooze charisthma. His The Lady Eve is considered his best film because he was lucky enough to land Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck, while The Palm Beach Story was graced with Claudette Colbert. Bracken is a little too sour to be entirely loveable, and a little too doughy to be heroic.

Sturges seems to me the opposite of someone like Chaplin, who wants to tug at your heartstrings and make you cry as well as laugh. Sturges seems to be covering something with his lightning-quick wit. He had an unusal childhood, traveling all over the world, wealthy at one time, completey destitude at another time. I think he fears pretentiousness, and drives away from anything in his films that can be taken seriously. His cynicism makes even Billy Wilder look like Casper the Friendly Ghost. You can laugh at at Sturges film, but you can't completely connect with one.

Hail the Conquering Hero is, I think, a lesser film, because of those few awkward wartime patriotism passages I mentioned. But still worth seeing, as always, because of that amazing Sturges dialogue.

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