Monday, February 4, 2013

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

Since the advent of talking motion pictures, there have been relatively few comedy auteurs. Oh, there have been lots of comedies and sometimes very good ones. Generally speaking though, these are made by directors who direct other genres as well. Films like Tootsie, Moonstruck, and MASH come to mind, though there are many, many others. Some directors, like Steven Spielberg or Alfred Hitchcock, have a flair for incorporating comedic elements in their films, but have fallen flat when they have attempted out-and-out comedies. The early promise of Cameron Crowe petered out after Almost Famous in 2000. There are two directors that I would consider to be comedy auteurs with reservations -- Billy Wilder and James L. Brooks. Wilder made some great comedies, but he also directed great movies in other genres. His comedies (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, for example) were brilliant enough to consider him a comedy auteur, I suppose. Brooks made 3 comedy masterpieces in a 30 year movie career -- Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good as It Gets. The rest of his 6 picture oeuvre is somewhat weaker (though I liked them all -- How Do You Know, Spanglish, and even I'll Do Anything). When you factor in Brooks's TV writing credits (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Phyllis, Taxi, and The Simpsons), well, you almost have to consider him a comedy auteur.

I can think of three more prolific filmmakers who almost exclusively worked in comedy: Frank Capra, Woody Allen, and... Preston Sturges. Sturges was arguably the first director in the post-silent film era to write and direct his own screenplays. This freedom only came after years of working on scripts within the studio system. The movie studio didn't care for Sturges wearing both hats on a film, but tolerated it because of his success. He won the first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for The Great McGinty, and he was nominated twice more -- for The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero.

Hail the Conquering Hero is a delightful wartime comedy set on the home front. Eddie Bracken plays Woodrow Truesmith, a young soldier who is embarrassed to return to his hometown because he has been medically discharged from the Marines due to extreme hay fever. He encounters a group of Marines and buys them a round of beer. When they learn about his plight, they intervene and concoct a story about Truesmith being a hero at Guadalcanal. The Marines accompany him to his hometown, and with a lot of exaggeration from the group's Sgt. Heppelfinger, Truesmith finds himself a celebrated hero by the townsfolk. He is soon nominated as a mayoral candidate and his protests only endear him to the electorate.

It is hard to imagine any actor of the day being more suited to the role of Truesmith than Bracken. Bracken's earnestness, likability, and line delivery serve the character well. I didn't know many of the other cast members other than William Demarest and Franklin Pangborn who were both used by Sturges repeatedly in his movies. Demarest, well-known for portraying Uncle Charley on TV's My Three Sons, plays Sgt. Heppelfinger with appropriate crustiness and bombast. Pangborn ably plays the reception committee chairman. I also liked Georgia Caine's understated performance as Truesmith's proud mother.

Hail the Conquering Hero is a fast-paced comedy with sharp, rapid-fire dialogue and lots of charm. The main problem seems to me to be the bland performances of Ella James as Truesmith's girlfriend Libby and the guys who play the younger Marines without much distinction between them. It is definitely a classic comedy and shouldn't be missed. Grade: A-.

I watched Hail the Conquering Hero via Netflix Streaming on January 30, 2013.

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