Over the Christmas holiday, I decided I had better watch some of the movies I had tivoed from the Turner Classic Movies cable channel. During the month of December, the channel had decided to air several of director Preston Sturges‘s comedies. Sullivan’s Travels aired, as did The Palm Beach Story and The Lady Eve. My favorite of the batch that they showed was 1944’s Hail the Conquering Hero. The movie’s cast is headed by Eddie Bracken, with wonderful supporting cast members : William Demarest(Uncle Charlie from the My Three Sons tv show), Ella Raines, Raymond Walburn, Franklin Pangborn, Elizabeth Patterson, Georgia Caine, and Al Bridge. Sturges’s films are predominately screwball comedies with a bit of drama thrown in and he often liked to hire the same actors and actresses to be in his films, many of the screenplays he wrote himself as well as doing the directing. In fact, he was nominated for an Academy Award in 1945 for this movie’s screenplay. Paramount, the studio where this movie was made, didn’t like that Sturges consistently hired the same actors and actresses for his movies and wanted to replace Ella Raines with a more well-known actress to play the girlfriend. Sturges wouldn’t agree to that and got his way, hiring the cast he wanted.
The plot is as follows: Eddie Bracken is Woodrow Truesmith, and he loves the United States Marine Corps. He knows their military history, and even recites all of their famous battles up to that point in history in a funny barroom scene. His father was a decorated, yet fallen Marine, dying in the Battle of Amiens, in France during WWI. His mother has a shrine to her late husband in the family home. Despite Woodrow being an only child, with his mother’s blessing, as soon as he can, he enlists in the Marines. Off to boot camp he goes, only to be discharged for chronic hayfever! Woodrow is from a small California town, and after his discharge, he is too ashamed to face his mother so he finds employment at a factory in another California town and has been writing his mom letters as if he is really on a ship or on an island in the South Pacific. One evening at a local bar, as Woodrow is having a beer and feeling sorry for himself, a group of Marines enters the place. Woodrow buys them a round of beers and as they begin talking, he discovers that the sergeant of the group, Sgt. Heppelfinger, played by William Demarest, knew his father in WWI. Woodrow’s dad was Heppelfinger’s commanding officer. This coincidence forms a bond between Woodrow, Heppelfinger, and the other Marines in the bar. Woodrow explains his discharge to the Marines and he also tells them about his false letters to his mother. The false letters don’t sit well with this band of warriors, especially one Marine who was an orphan: it’s a pretty funny gag throughout the rest of the movie, the orphaned Marine always getting on Woodrow’s case about how he’s treated his mother! Sgt. Heppelfinger, unbeknownst to Woodrow, goes to the bar’s payphone and finds out Woodrow’s home phone number, calls Mrs. Truesmith, and informs her that Woodrow was wounded, but is fine and will be coming home just for a few days in order to see her. The sergeant’s plan is to get Woodrow home to see his mother, and then get him back to his factory job, with mother none the wiser about his really being discharged for chronic hayfever. Woodrow is horrified by the sneaky plan and balks at wearing a Marine uniform as he is no longer active duty. He worries he’ll be found out as a faker and thrown into jail. But the lively group of Marines, led by Sgt. Hepplefinger, resolve to protect Woodrow, to help him see his mother, and then help get Woodrow back to his factory job. What the sergeant and his band of Marines don’t know is that Woodrow’s mother has told her friends, who have told the entire town, and the mayor and the city council, and a huge “Welcome Home Woodrow” event has been planned, and the entire town is coming to greet him and his new Marine buddies at the train station!
Sturges’s screenplay pokes fun at politics and politicians, at hero worship, and small towns. The pokes are gentle, though, and the humor shines through in the dialogue and the acting. As WWII was still being fought when this movie was being filmed, there are nods to patriotism throughout the film too. Being a mom of an active duty Marine myself, all the bits in the movie about the Corps made the film even more fun for me to watch. Eddie Bracken is great, as the increasingly frazzled Woodrow, who wants to stop this snowball of a “Welcome Home Woodrow You’re Our Hero!” movement, but he knows that the truth will hurt his mother the most. He also has a former girlfriend, Libby, played by Ella Raines, to deal with as she is engaged to the mayor’s son, but isn’t really sure if she loves her fiance or still loves Woodrow. Raymond Walburn and Al Bridge are great as the pompous Mayor and his political henchman, trying to get re-elected, and when the city council members who don’t like the current mayor want Woodrow to run for mayor, the situaton for poor Woodrow gets even crazier!
If you want to see a movie with wit, charm, and great humor, then this is an excellent movie to see!