' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

Friday, June 04, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

One of the entries in esteemed film critic Roger Ebert’s Glossary of Movie Terms was Idiot Plot. An idiot plot, Ebert explained, was “(a)ny plot containing problems that would be solved instantly if all of the characters were not idiots.” Indeed, Ebert wrote often of movies where myriad problems could be solved if a single character simply blurted out the truth. Preston Sturges’s “Hail the Conquering Hero” (1944) is such a movie. Its main character, Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken), mistaken as a WWII hero because of a little white lie that grows and grows, could simply tell the truth, just as the marines in his company who tell the little white lie in the first place and keep greasing the fib’s wheels could simply tell the truth. Characters in Woodrow’s hometown, where he winds up being celebrated, could ask a couple questions, or maybe just a single follow-up question, and glean the truth. This is not a criticism. Most Idiot Plots of which Ebert spoke sprung from necessity, by which I mean storytelling malfeasance, but in “Hail the Conquering Hero”, released into theaters while WWII was still raging, goes to show that blind hero worship in combination with patriotic fever run amok makes idiots of us all.

“Hail the Conquering Hero” opens in a San Diego bar where a forlorn Woodrow, nursing a beer by himself, buys drinks and food for a few Marines just in from Guadalcanal. In their company, Woodrow warms up, a little, confessing to have been discharged from the Marines after one month for hay fever, shattering his dream, and a dream it is. He has always wanted to fight in a war, he explains, listing every battle the Marines were in from 1775 to now to prove his point. And he goes through them, the camera presses in, like he’s an actor on the stage and this is his big monologue. It’s an incredible moment, an example of how deft Sturges could be in his satire, where in one light, it’s like nothing less than a sentimental recruiting ad, though if you change that light one iota, it just looks sad, subtly skewering the notion that war and fighting in a big battle is what makes a man. Sturges takes the latter a step further by writing Woodrow’s father, Hinky Dinky, as a war hero, suggesting a son living in his father’s shadow and now failing to live up to it. The only thing worse, though, than failing to live up to your father, is lying to your mother, which is why one of the Marines, Bugsy (Freddie Steele) calls up Woodrow’s mother and explains her son is coming home.

If Bugsy is the only one telling the truth, he’s also telling a lie, claiming Woodrow was honorably discharged after fighting in Guadalcanal, which is him inventing a story after scolding Woodrow for not telling the truth, sort of bending the notion of truth and lies into a pretzel, offset by Steele’s fairly stunning performance, playing the part in such a way that you’re never entirely sure if Bugsy is a few steps behind everyone or several blocks ahead. And rather than setting the record straight when Woodrow and his new Marine pals arrive in town to a massive homecoming of pep bands and people cheering, the lie builds at the same speed he is whisked from civic event to civic event, as if we are seeing the phony story of Schumann, the faux-hero of “Wag the Dog”, running rampant in real time rather than concocted by forces behind the scenes,

Sturges stages myriad crowd scenes of Woodrow’s jubilant homecoming where Bracken’s increasingly panicked facial expressions evince a hapless dufus virtually drowning in a sea of b.s. while the nature of such crowds to just sort of carry that b.s. along comes through in the frustrations of the Reception Committee Chairman who can’t keep the four bands on time and continually blows his whistle to no avail; everything just gets away from them. Eventually, though, Sturges departs from big crowds for more intimate moments instead, though even here willful communication breakdowns remain. The current Mayor (Raymond Walburn), who walks back and forth haranguing his political consultant, mostly just talks to himself, hardly listening to a word his political consultant says. And when Woodrow finally gets a moment alone with his ex-girlfriend, Libby (Ella Raines), who he still pines for and who still pines for him even though she is engaged to someone else, they both essentially spill their respective hidden truths to the other though the other is too blinkered to hear or believe it.

Another movie might have portrayed as Woodrow being up to no good and waiting to be exposed for his lie. And though the Mayor’s consultant does uncover the lie, he doesn’t get the chance to reveal it as “Hail the Conquering Hero” has Woodrow reveal in it a climactic speech instead, explaining he is not worthy of being Mayor. In the topsy-turvy world of “Hail the Conquering Hero”, however, that bit of truth is ultimately what sells the town on Woodrow being the perfect Mayoral candidate anyway. This, like so much of the movie, exists on two tracks at once, espousing a sentimental belief in honest politicians even as it simultaneously emphasizes the only way you can tell an honest politician is when he confesses to lying straight to your face.

No comments: