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HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO (director/writer: Preston Sturges; cinematographer: John Seitz; editor: Stuart Gilmore; music: Werner Heymann; cast: Eddie Bracken (Woodrow Truesmith), Ella Raines (Libby), Bill Edwards (Forrest Noble), Raymond Walburn (Mayor Noble), William Demarest (Sergeant Julius Heffelfinger), Jimmie Dundee (Corporal), Georgia Caine (Mrs. Truesmith), Franklin Pangborn (Chairman of Committee), Alan Bridge (Political Boss), Harry Hayden (Doc Bissell), Jimmy Conlin (Judge Dennis), Freddie Steele (Bugsy Walewski), Elizabeth Patterson (Libby’s aunt), Esther Howard (Mrs. Noble), Arthur Hoyt (Rev. Upperman), Jimmie Dundee (Cpl. Candida), James Damore (Pfc. Jones), Stephen Gregory (Bill), Len Hendry (Juke); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Buddy G. DeSylva/Preston Sturges; Paramount; 1944)
“moves beyond slapstick as it’s skillfully and energetically put together to tell much about Americana.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A first-rate Preston Sturges (“The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”/”The Great McGinty”) romp on small town American over-patriotism, maternal love and military hero worship, amazingly filmed during World War II. The film has a dejected young man named Woodrow LaFayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) discharged from the marines after a month for chronic hay fever, nursing some beers at a bar. Six marine heroes just returned from Guadalcanal, led by the much decorated Sgt. Julius Heffelfinger (William Demarest), come in, and Woodrow buys them all beer because they’re broke. The marines learn that Woodrow’s father died a marine hero in World War I on the same day that Woodrow was born, and that he always wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. For as long as a year Woodrow is too humiliated to return home and works in a shipyard, telling mom he was sent overseas. As a coincidence, Woodrow’s father was the Sarge’s own sergeant during the battle where he was killed. One of the marines, Bugsy Walewski (Freddie Steele), has a mother-complex, and calls Woodrow’s mom that her son’s coming home from Guadalcanal for medical reasons, but hay fever gets translated over the garbled phone line as jungle fever. The Sarge says it would be a good idea to make Woodrow a hero for his mom’s sake and gives him some of his ribbons to put on his old uniform as the six marines arrive by train in the hero’s small town in Oakridge, California, where they are startled to discover that greeting him are the entire town, four marching bands and Mayor Noble (Raymond Walburn) is there to give him the key to the city. Woodrow is perplexed about how to handle it, but the blustery Sarge takes charge as the reverend praises the hero at a Sunday church service and burns his mom’s mortgage which the town will pay, the civic leaders plan on building a monument for him and his father, and the town’s prominent citizens, led by Judge Dennis (Jimmy Conlin) and former mayoral candidate Doc Bissell (Harry Hayden), nominate an overwhelmed Woodrow for mayor. Telling his supporters that he’s unworthy of this honor only makes them think he’s being humble. Embarrassed because of his discharge, Woodrow broke off his engagement with Libby (Ella Raines), who is now engaged to Mayor Noble’s wealthy 4-F son Forrest (Bill Edwards). Trying to tell Woodrow that she’s now engaged to Forrest is not easy, because the right moment never comes up. When she does tell him, she’s disappointed that he’s pleased and refuses to fight for her. It all leads to a sentimental but well-realized ending, as Woodrow comes clean and confesses to the deception in a heartfelt speech. Thinking his days are numbered in his hometown he plans on leaving by train, but the Sarge gave the townies a pep talk and called Woodrow a truly courageous man because he’s able to tell the truth in face of so much humiliation. The prominent citizens agree and request that he accept their offer as mayoral candidate; Libby, meanwhile, breaks off her engagement with Forrest to join Woodrow. After accepting the nomination, the marines leave.

Sturges’ mistaken-identity quirky yarn moves beyond slapstick as it’s skillfully and energetically put together to tell much about Americana and it makes good use of Sturges’ repertory of comic character actors (William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Raymond Walburn, and Jimmy Conlin). It’s loaded with sharp non-sequiturs and spares no one from being satirized, as it laces into the Middle American sacred cows of sweet moms, cherished dads, military heroes, populism and apple pie.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”