Hail the Conquering Hero: Preston Sturges Oscar-Nominated Satirical Comedy Starring Eddie Bracken

In Hail the Conquering Hero Preston Sturges’ satirical barbs are targeted at both the public (the Fetish of heroism) and domestic (the Cult of Momism) domains.

As writer-director, he probes into society’s need for heroes and the ease with which such heroes are fabricated and revered by the masses, new subject for Hollywood films at the time that would become more prominent in the future.  Once again, ironies abound in the film.

The hero, boasting the long and prestigious name of Woodraw Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken), is an orphan whose father was a war hero. Embarrassed over the fact that he was dismissed from service because of a chronic hay fever, he lies to his mother that he has fought with the Marines, concealing the fact that he is actually working in a shipyard.

A group of Marines in a San Francisco bar take his story one step further, determined to make him a War hero in his own town. What his sponsors don’t realize is the mass hysteria induced by the hero-worshipping crowds. The film offers a witty commentary on demagoguery and mob behavior, suggesting that as easily as a crowd could be persuaded to lynch an innocent man, it could also be susceptible to accept phonies as heroes. Practically the whole town of Oakridge is at the train station to greet Woodraw, with not one but four bands. “I’m a haunted man for the rest of my life,” says Woodraw helplessly, realizing he is trapped in a position over which he has no control.

A comparison between Miracle of St. Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero is in order, not only because they were made in the same year and shot on the same Paramount backlot, but because they feature Sturges’s great ensemble of character players.

The hero in both films is played by Eddie Bracken, though his role is quite different. In Miracle, he is an orphan, living at the periphery of town, but ending at its center by accident, through manipulations of others. In Hail, Woodraw is also fatherless, but he boasts a prestigious lineage. Woodraw was reared in the shadow of his father, Hinky Dinky, a brave Marine who died in action in WWI, and his Congressional Medal of Honor. “I grew up with it,” says the exasperated Woodraw, “They hung it on me.” His grandfather, also in the military, continued to wear his Civil War uniform for the rest of his life.

Unlike Miracle, in Hail, Woodraw is not completely innocent; after all, he initiates the fraud. He is responsible at least in part for the mess in his life. But if Woodraw is initially a small impostor, his fraud gets bigger and bigger, reaching a point where it becomes disproportionate to the original conceit.

The reverend Dr. Upperman states at the Church that the mortgage on the home of Woodraw’s mother will be paid by the town. The incumbent mayor (ironically named Everett Noble) and the Boss are both corrupt. The Judge wishes Woodraw would run for mayor: the town needs someone who’ll help them “transcend their own lives and interests.” He thinks Woodraw possesses two great assets, honesty and popularity and that he has a “natural flavor for politics.” Honesty is not sufficient in itself. The other candidate, Doc Bissell, a veterinarian, is an honest man, but nobody would vote for him other than his brother; there are even doubts whether his wife would. Woodraw tries to explain that his medals were pinned on him by mistake, but they won’t listen.

Hail shows that society needs heroes desperately–even if they are fake. Besides, no one is expected to substantiate his claim to celebrity. “I been a hero, you could call it that, for twenty five years,” says Sergeant Heffelinger, “and does anybody ask me what I done” If they asked him, he could hardly tell, as “I’ve told it so different so many times.” The statue of General Zabriski, which decorates the town’s square, also suffers from obscurity. “All everybody knows is he’s hero,” but no one could identify him or say why he became a hero. The only difference between Zabriski and Heffelinger is that the birds sit on the former’s statue.

The most outrageous character in Hail the Conquering Hero is Bugsy (Freddie Steele), the marine who “got a little shot.” Obsessed with mothers, he is shocked to hear that Woodraw has not visited home. “That’s a terrible thing to do to your mother,” he says, “you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

Obsession with motherhood prevails from the very first scene, in a San Francisco bar, where a singer sings:

Home to the arms of Mother
Safe from the world’s alarms
As you stood in the gloaming
To welcome me home…
Home to the arms of Mother…
Never again to roam!

Touching (too) familiar chords, Woodraw asks for another song, “something gay.” Woodraw is also mother-fixated, his entire behavior is motivated by a strong need to please her and get her approval.  “I know you meant it for me, no matter what anyone else might think,” says his mother.  And at the end, when he resolves to leave town, he tells his mother: “If I can find a nice place, I’ll send for you….”

Back in town, Woodraw has no time for himself and no privacy. Sturges pits Woodraw, the hapless individual, against the Marines, the bands, the Judge’s delegation, the town’s crowd. Sturges’s frames are extremely busy, always cramped with many people. Lacking depth or background, they convey the frantic world his narratives are set in. Yet, as the scholar James Harvey noted, “no one in a Sturges’s crowd fails to register his special and unique relation to it and to the others.”

Oscar Nominations: 1

Original Screenplay: Preston Sturges

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Original Screenplay Oscar was Lamar Trotti for the biopic, “Wilson,” which was also nominated for Best Picture and other Oscars.

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