“I knew the Marines could do almost anything, but I never knew they could do anything like this.”
Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) has, as you can probably tell by his name, a lot to live up to. His father, “Hinky Dinky” Truesmith, was a Marine who died at the Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918, the same day Woodrow was born. When the United States enters World War II, Woodrow enlists in the Marine Corp., only to be medically discharged a month later due to chronic hay fever.
Instead of going home and admitting the truth to his mother (Georgia Caine), Woodrow gets a job in a shipyard. One night at a bar, he orders a round of drinks for a group of six Marines who’ve just returned from Guadalcanal. Their leader, Sgt. Heppelfinger (William Demarest), fought in World War I beside Woodrow’s father, whom he respected greatly. The group of Marines listens to Woodrow’s story, and they come up with a scheme to pass Woodrow off as a returning hero to save face in front of his mother.
Unbeknownst to them, however, Woodrow’s mother tells the entire town that her “conquering hero” is returning home, and a huge reception awaits them at the train station–including Libby (Ella Raines), Woodrow’s true love. She is now engaged to the pompous mayor’s son (Bill Edwards) after having received a letter from Woodrow telling her that she shouldn’t wait for him.
Against his will (and better judgment), Woodrow is forced to go along with the charade, growing increasingly uncomfortable with his position as the new town hero. Things get exponentially worse when Woodrow is maneuvered into running for mayor against the incumbent, on a platform trumpeting the heroic qualities that make him a “perfect” candidate for the post.
Hail the Conquering Hero was writer/director Preston Sturges’ final film for Paramount, though it was released in theaters before The Great Moment (which had actually been filmed in 1942 before being delayed for multiple re-edits). Sturges’ contract with the studio actually expired before post-production was completed on Hero, though he later returned to shoot a new ending and finish editing the film.
Hero is a veritable laugh riot in its first half, but quickly devolves into a combination of tongue-in-cheek political satire and almost mawkish sentimentality by the end. Hero is staged initially as a screwball comedy, with an outlandishly farcical set-up (prototypical of Sturges) and rapid-fire, witty dialogue (again, a Sturges hallmark). But when Woodrow arrives home, the humor, though still packing a punch in places, wanes in favor of the film’s message: that hero worship, especially that of the proliferation of new American war heroes, can ultimately be blinding. Despite the heavy-handedness of the message, however, Hero is still a charming, funny film, anchored by an unmatched comedic performance from its leading man, Eddie Bracken.
When filming commenced on Hero, Bracken had just come off a starring role in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, which had been released earlier in 1944. He’d made his film debut in 1940 in the film version of the Broadway musical Too Many Girls, repeating his starring role from the stage. Throughout the 1940s, Bracken was a huge star both on screen and on the radio, and though he retired from film in the 1950s, he made a comeback of sorts with his role as the owner of Walley World in 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation. He appeared in a handful of other films (Oscar in 1991, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York in 1992) before his death in 2002.
Ella Raines was presented with her first big starring role as Libby, but if not for Sturges’ defense of her, she would never have had the part at all. When her casting was announced, Paramount reportedly threw a fit, insisting that Sturges recast the part with a “name” actress. Sturges refused, a stance that contributed to the growing schism between the writer/director and the studio. Raines ultimately had a rather short-lived career in Hollywood, appearing in a number of films throughout the 1940s and then moving primarily into television roles through the mid-1950s.
As usual, the film features a lineup of wonderfully oddball characters from Sturges’ unofficial “stock company” of supporting actors, including Demarest as the determined Heppelfinger, Raymond Walburn as the ridiculously self-important Mayor Everett “Evvy” Noble, Franklin Pangborn as the frustrated chairman of the town’s welcoming committee, Georgia Caine as Woodrow’s mother, Esther Howard as the mayor’s deliciously daffy wife, Jimmy Conlin as Judge Dennis, and Al Bridge as the mayor’s adviser (“Save your voice, Evvy”).
Hero also features supporting turns by Elizabeth Patterson, perhaps best known as Mrs. Trumbull on I Love Lucy, as Libby’s aunt, and Freddie Steele, a former World Middleweight Boxing champion, as one of the Marines. Hero presented Steele with his first acting role, but since the film’s release was delayed, he actually appeared on-screen in several other films first (including a bit part in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek). In Hero, Steele plays Bugsy, the Marine with “momma issues” and PTSD whose interference starts the chain of events that leads to Woodrow’s deception. Given his pugnacious attitude and take-no-nonsense film persona, his background as a world-class fighter comes as little surprise. Steele’s film career wasn’t long–he made his final film in 1948–but he made a name for himself with a series of military-type roles, including a part in 1945’s Story of G.I. Joe.
Sturges was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Hero. That same year, he was also nominated in the same category for the script for Morgan’s Creek. Funnily enough, he lost to Wilson (1944), a biopic of Woodrow’s namesake, President Woodrow Wilson.
Hail to the Conquering Hero, it can be argued, marks the end of Sturges’ most prolific creative period. After the release of Hero and The Great Moment in 1944, Sturges went the independent filmmaker route, and though he would go on to film a handful of other pictures in subsequent years, his career never reached the same heights as during his early 1940s heyday. By 1955, his career was over, and he passed away four years later while writing his autobiography (which was finally published in 1990).