Saturday, January 20, 2018

Hail the Conquering Hero

Hail the Conquering Hero (Preston Sturges, 1944) You can take "Semper Fi" just a little too far sometimes. Small-town schnook Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) is drinking alone in a bar. Washed out of his beloved Marine Corps for chronic hay fever, he's been working in a San Diego shipyard ever since and writing letters, full of fiction, to his Mom, a Marine widow, that he's fighting overseas. He spots a group of jarheads (led by Sturges regular William Demarest) trying to buy a communal beer with 15¢ between 'em, and buys them a round.

When they hear his tale of woe and subterfuge, the Marines take sympathetic pity on Woodrow, and concoct a story that reads like an invasion plan. Just back from Guadalcanal, they pin their medals on the kid, insist on escorting him home, and make up a cock-and-bull story about him being a hero. Anything for dear ol' Mom. But, as things tend to do in Sturges comedies, things accelerate in a dither of cross-purposes and crushed dialogue. Caught up in the manufactured patriotic fervor, the whole town sings Woodrow's praises, the bank forgiving Mom's mortgage and nominating him for Mayor (with the election only two days away!). Woodrow's genuinely appalled, but the Marines are steadfast in seeing Woodrow's dreams come true, no matter how much he protests, no matter how much he whines. No matter how much guilt he feels.

It took some guts for Sturges to make a story about blind hero-worship and unquestioning patriotic fervor during war-time, but emboldened by a basic cynicism, Sturges does a strafing run on a veritable gallery of targets (with the military even co-operating with the filming!) Sturges takes pot-shots at bankers, small-town in-bred politicians and the insanity of mob-rule, yet still manages to make a fairly sunny picture with a lot of laughs and a hero who's anything but.

Part of the charm of Hail the Conquering Hero is Truesmith as played by Eddie Bracken. Not much to look at, kinda dumpy with a nose that follows the slope of his fore-head without benefit of eyebrow ridges, Bracken has the same voice and manner of Mickey Rooney, a ferocity of energy and a quick way of delivering lines with maximum inflection. That he spends the entire movie frustrated, bitter and cynical doesn't lessen his appeal one jot, which is, frankly, amazing—it's something even James Stewart couldn't pull off in The Philadelphia Story.
Hail, the Conquering Hero has a couple of Northwest connections: the ingenue is played by Ella Raines, who was born in the little town of Snoqualmie Falls, Washington, and is something of a noir icon for her titular role in Phantom Lady; and one of the Marines is played by a mug with a mushed-in face named Freddie Steele.

Steele was a professional middleweight boxer in the Pacific Northwest with an astounding record of wins-losses and draws of 125-5-11. Noted for his pile-driver punches, he was known as "The Tacoma Assassin," before a punch broke his breast-bone (ouch!) and he gave up the ring for the movies. He ran a legendary restaurant in Westport for many years, and his role as the one Marine who thinks that Trueblood may not deserve the false-god praise he gets is the most satisfying of the emotional through-lines in Hail, the Conquering Hero.

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