Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Hero Worship

Film: Hail the Conquering Hero
Format: Streaming video from Hoopla Digital on The Nook.

A couple of weeks ago, the Library of Congress announced the latest crop of films to be preserved in the National Film Registry. Among the honorees are Ghostbusters and Top Gun. While there are some odd additions (like a 1946 Disney film called The Story of Menstruation), the one that seems like it’s the furthest afield is Hail the Conquering Hero. Why? Because it seems completely forgotten.

Let’s get this out of the way straight off--Hail the Conquering Hero, for a screwball comedy from the war years, is the ballsiest thing you will see for a very long time. Preston Sturges could have easily sullied his reputation entirely and driven himself out of the film industry and possibly out of the country had this been tilted a couple of degrees one way or the other. This is very much a spoof on wartime society and it would have been very easy for this to be so completely offensive to the general public that Sturges would have literally needed to flee for his life. But it all works.

Here’s the set up: Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) is the son of a Marine war hero from World War I. In fact, young Woodrow was being born almost at the exact moment his father was dying on the battlefield. With the advent of World War II, Woodrow naturally enlists, but is given a medical discharge a month later because of chronic hay fever. For the past year, he has worked in a shipyard, with letters coming home from overseas thanks to a friend who has mailed them to his mother. While sitting in a bar, Woodrow sees a group of Marines fresh from Guadalcanal. He buys them drinks and food, and they come to hear his story. As it happens, Sergeant Heppelfinger (William Demarest) knew Woodrow’s father and was there when he died. Not wanting Woodrow to be a chump for the rest of his life, one of the men calls Woodrow’s mother and tells her that he is on his way home. The men put Woodrow in one of their uniform and decide to escort him back, planning to get him home and get out.

Unfortunately, the town hears about Woodrow’s return and decides to turn out for him complete with four different bands and the key to the city. Woodrow is swept up in the hoopla, unable to tell anyone what really happened, especially because his new military friends continue to embellish the story of Woodrow’s heroics on Guadalcanal. All Woodrow wants to do is go away so that no one will find out the real story, but even his girlfriend Libby (Ella Raines) has turned out for him despite him telling her to forget him and despite her plans to marry Forrest Noble (Bill Edwards), the son of the mayor, in a week.

The mayor (Raymond Walburn) is set for re-election in a couple of days even though the townspeople don’t really like him much. So the opposing party hits on a brilliant plan—a write-in campaign for Woodrow. Of course, Woodrow wants none of this since he’s not really a war hero, but every time he tries to tell someone the truth, no one listens. With the town paying off his mother’s (Georgia Caine) mortgage and a statue planned to honor him, it seems like everything is going right for Woodrow when it’s actually going wrong.

The brilliance of the film is that it is essentially taking the piss out of the idea of hero worship and our propensity to build up heroes out of nothing simply because we evidently need heroes. It is a pure social satire of the type that doesn’t seem to be made much anymore. The townspeople are so willing to believe in Woodrow that nothing he says can dissuade them from the fact that he isn’t the man everyone thinks he is. Remember, this was released in 1944—during the war—and Preston Sturges is essentially telling the audience that their immediate worship of anyone returning from the war is potentially misguided.

So why does it work? Because of Woodrow. Eddie Bracken nails this role completely. This would be a terrible, reprehensible movie if we didn’t like Woodrow as a character, but he’s immediately likable because he doesn’t want anything that happens to him. He is essentially an honest man who has gone out of his way simply not to embarrass his mother and has simply gotten swept up in events he didn’t want that have spun completely out of his control. He’s an easy character to sympathize with because we understand exactly what he is going through and what he really wants, even if he is prevented from doing what he needs to at every turn.

The plot itself is lightning fast, with each new event piling on top of the previous before the previous one has registered. As things get crazier and crazier, we’re left seeing poor Woodrow reeling from things that happened minutes before while he’s being hit with more and more developments. Woodrow is, as I said, an essentially honest guy who simply had the bad luck of having uncontrollable hay fever. He really wanted to go to war. He really wanted to be a Marine. He just couldn’t make the grade physically.

This is a gutsy film for what it does and the time that it does it. It wouldn’t have nearly the power it does had it been released five years earlier or five years later. That it came out when it did and got the acclaim it did (the National Board of Review called it the best film of 1944) only further demonstrates just how genius it really is.

Why to watch Hail the Conquering Hero: It’s a hell of a fun story.
Why not to watch: Like many an early comedy, the plot strains believability.

5 comments:

  1. Serious question, then: how many people in 1944 actually got the joke? Some possibilities (this is by no means an exhaustive list):

    1. No one got the joke. This was a clever satire that went over everyone's heads, and with no one to appreciate what the film was really trying to do, the film might be considered an artistic failure: too clever for its era.

    2. Some folks got the joke, and that's why they thought the film was brilliant, but they might not have been able or willing to express their opinion of the movie too loudly. (I wonder what the reviews of the time actually said, and how many reviewers actually got it.)

    3. Similar to (1), everyone thought the film was brilliant, but for the wrong reason, and this was the filmmakers' intention. If that's the case, i.e., if the film was an enormous prank on the viewing public, then perhaps it might be considered an artistic success.

    For me, (1) would be sad if true, (2) would be plausible, and (3) would be my ideal.

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    1. Actually, I think 4. People got it completely is the closest to the truth. It's not that hard to get, honestly. It's clearly satire (the mayor is an obvious pompous douchebag) and it never hides that Woodrow is anything other than what he claims he is--because he plays it honest with the audience, it's easy to buy the entire thing. It wouldn't work at all if he lied to us. Instead, other people are lying for him, so everyone else buys the story. The genius here, in fact, is that it so blantantly tells the American public that their hero worship is naive.

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  2. You really nailed that review, Steve. I love Eddie Bracken in this movie. My very favorite part, though, is Demerest's closing line as the real Marines go off to more war.

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    1. Demarest is great in this, but it's completely Bracken's film. I enjoyed the hell out of this movie.

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