Notes on “Hail the Conquering Hero”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

htchmob

A young man rejected by the Marines for chronic hay fever becomes a celebrity in his hometown when he’s taken for a hero of Guadalcanal. The fraud is perpetrated not by the hay fever sufferer, named Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, but by several actual Marines. Cherishing mother love above honor, they can’t bear the idea of Woodrow’s mama thinking he’s unworthy. So they lie to her. The lie becomes accepted throughout Woodrow’s hometown, but no one but Woodrow is bothered by it, least of all the pushily friendly Marines, who seem to take fraudulence enacted in the service of good feeling as an act of high patriotism. Perhaps no American movie made during the period of the Second World War is more subversive. No sacred cow goes unmilked: Writer-director Preston Sturges skewers American institutions like politics, religion, motherhood, and mortgage debt with a geniality that belies his ruthlessness. (I think this may be a better send-up of Capra’s optimism than “Sullivan’s Travels.”) Moreover, he shows how these institutions are codependent — how an enthusiasm for war grows out of a desire to please dear old mom. Sturges, whose visual inventiveness is underrated, makes a motif out of crowds; in doing so he imbues the force of democracy with alarming arbitrariness. Rather than two-shots, Sturges and cinematographer John F. Seitz give us three-, four-, and five-shots, the actors’ heads crowding the frame like the tipsy subjects of a Merry Company by Frans Hals. And the townsfolk, energetic to the point of nervousness, seem always on the verge of a parade. Sturges connects the parade with the mob in ways that would never occur to an artist of more complacent disposition. He treats it as a formalization of popular hysteria, one that threatens to sweep us up and carry us off to God knows where. (To the participants, the end is irrelevant; what matters is that the motion is equal to the fervor of the moment.) As Woodrow, Eddie Bracken is about perfect. When Sturges wanted us to look up to his hero, he cast Joel McCrea (if not Henry Fonda or Rex Harrison). But in the two movies that Bracken made with the director, this and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” we’re intended to pity the hero, to share in his anxiety. Bracken makes this identification both funny and painful, and his timing is impeccable. In the role of Bracken’s girl, Ella Raines is pretty enough, but the actress seems unaware of her character’s dullness, and is probably technically incapable of playing off of it anyway. In her scenes with Bracken the movie feels like it’s treading water. The members of the Sturges troupe of character grotesques are all present and all terrific, especially William Demarest as the bumptious Sergeant Heffelfinger.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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