Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Entertaining Angels Unawares: Hail the Conquering Hero

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: 
for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
Hebrews 13:1-2

Our attitude toward our fighting men and women has fluctuated dramatically over the years. Since the first Gulf War we’ve freely given the respect, admiration, and honor rightly due our homecoming professional soldiers, despite whatever our feelings may be toward the conflicts they’ve willingly answered the call to participate in while leaving behind their homes and families. A generation earlier, troops returning from Vietnam were alternately ignored, spat on, or slandered to varying degrees for following orders and fighting what ultimately became an unpopular war.

During the Second World War, the GIs—“our boys”—constantly had their praises sung by the public and the media. Nearly an entire generation of men were called to duty, and they were the sons, uncles, fathers and cousins of nearly every one of us . . . so it was personal. As a result, Hollywood, though its intentions may very well have been honorable and the cause just, produced a lot of flag waving drivel to promote the war effort at home and on the fighting front, especially during the early years of the war.

Enter Preston Sturges who, along with John Huston, became one of the first screenwriters to make a successful transition to directing feature films in the sound era. Sturges, who is recognized as a genius of cinema comedy, with at least seven masterpieces of that genre to his credit in the 1940s, was too clever a character—and also a trifle too sardonic—to dally in the jingoism that was in vogue at the time. Nevertheless, he showed his admiration for, and paid his respects to, the American fighting man in no uncertain terms in Hail the Conquering Hero.  

Hail the Conquering Hero is a comedy, but it forgoes much of the slapstick visual humor that Sturges spread liberally across most of his other signature films, including The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels, both from 1941. In its place Sturges, who really authored no visual cinematic style to speak of prior to Hero, utilizes crowded compositions of wall-to-wall people to match the snappy, inventive, wall-to-wall dialogue he was known for. The film moves along briskly, with abrupt, well-timed cuts, as he propels his plot nimbly forward. 

Preston Sturges

The professed hero is one Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken, who also starred in Sturges’ brilliant The Miracle of Morgan's Creek), a chronic hay fever sufferer rejected by the Marines, who was born on the day—at the very moment in fact—that his genuine Marine hero father was killed at the Battle of Belleau Wood during World War I. Consequently, he’s had enormous shoes to fill his entire life, and can’t summon the nerve to return home to face his mother, his town, and the music (literally, as it turns out). To make matters worse, he’s written his mother that he’s a Marine, and has been fighting in the Pacific for the past year. 

But the real heroes of the film are six tapped-out, battle-hardened leathernecks fresh from Guadalcanal, who emerge from the evening mist on a city street, stopping to bicker with one another outside the tavern in which Woodrow happens to be drowning his sorrows. Woodrow buys them sandwiches and a couple of rounds of drinks, winning their respect by way of his fidelity to The Corps, and their sympathy by way of his unenviable position: an inability to make the grade in his perceived birthright branch of the service. (During WWII, soldiers were routinely held up as examples of America’s finest, and it was the goal of every male from schoolboy to young adult to be one, or else suffer derision and raised eyebrows.)

Through a series of well-intentioned ruses perpetuated by his new, uniformed buddies, Woodrow returns with them to his hometown a conquering, decorated hero. His long-suffering mother (who keeps a shrine to her late husband with his photograph prominently displayed), as well as his former girlfriend (who has become engaged to marry the hapless, buffoonish son of the conniving, windbag mayor, the latter wonderfully played by Sturges stock company favorite Raymond Walburn) and the whole community welcome him at the train station with open arms and several marching bands. Things have clearly gotten out of control, and not only does the town pay off the mortgage on his mother’s home and propose a statue of him and his father, they ultimately nominate Woodrow as a candidate for mayor, solely on the basis of his military exploits, which in reality never happened.

None of this sits well with Woodrow, who tries tirelessly to tell the truth to anyone who’ll listen, but the entire town is swept away in a rapture of pride and patriotism, and is deaf to his exhortations. Even if they wanted to they wouldn’t get the chance to hear his side of the story, as Sergeant Heppelfinger (William Demarest), the leader of the small group of Marines, constantly adds to the tangled web, building on Woodrow’s legend at every turn.

It’s here that Sturges sets himself apart from the pack. He deftly yet nearly invisibly pokes fun at blind hero worship and even exploitation of the military, while at the same time paying tribute to our men in uniform who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf. And he fulfills in spades the number one requirement of a Hollywood movie in the heyday of the studio system: he entertains us. “Laugh and the world laughs with you, frown and you frown alone,” says a character in the film, echoing a line from Leo McCarey’s Going My Way, released earlier that same year (1944), and likely a mantra for those on the home front during World War II.

Eventually Woodrow finds the opportunity to come clean in front of the community, after which he packs to leave town in disgrace. But the very fact that he was “honest, courageous and voracious” enough to publicly deliver such a confession, and that the reason for his initial transgression was to spare the feelings of his mother, the townsfolk (with the help of compelling, off-screen speeches on his behalf by Sgt. Heppelfinger and another mayoral candidate) realize Woodrow possesses all of the qualities they need in a mayor.  

It has been suggested that Sturges, who spent part of his childhood in Europe, satirizes the American reverence for motherhood in Hail the Conquering Hero, but his solemn depiction of the devout attitude of Woodrow and orphaned Marine Buggsy (memorably played by former boxer Freddie Steele, who would stand out again in William Wellman’s 1945 The Story of GI Joe) toward Woodrow’s loving mother asserts otherwise. She stands unscathed and deified throughout the film, as much so as the integrity, loyalty, and unflappability the marines embody, despite their very human flaws and foibles. “Home to the Arms of Mother” (written by Sturges) figures prominently in the soundtrack, and a performance of the song (with tongue ever so slightly in cheek—this is a comedy) in the very first scene elicits unashamed tears from anonymous onscreen characters. They are surrogates for us, the viewing audience. Hearth, home and motherhood were revered during this turbulent time in our history when young men leaving home—many of them for the first time—were uncertain whether or not they would ever see their mothers again, and these ideals were not taken lightly. By contrast, Sturges’ true targets—mindless patriotism and small town politicians—are broadsided with scathing humor.

Woodrow’s return to the fold, his winning back his girl, his achieving his lifelong desire to be respected and valued for what he has to offer rather than for his father’s heroism would not have happened if he hadnt entertained the six uniformed strangers, providing them food and drink; they in turn seemingly providentially set his life on its proper course, triggering the series of painful, cathartic events that unfold upon his homecoming. And Woodrow is a better man for it. “I knew the Marines could do almost anything,” he says to them, “but I never knew they could do anything like this,” to which Buggsy replies, “You got no idea!” 

Then, forming a tableau framed by the observation deck of a passenger train coach, and waving goodbye to the cheering townspeople, the marines depart as they arrived, in a misty trail of steam (as they pass a poster advertising The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) to the strains of the Marines’ Hymn. Dissolve to Woodrow’s mother’s enshrined photograph of her fallen Marine husband. It doesn’t get any more patriotic than this, but the sardonic Sturges has earned this stirring bow to heartfelt emotion, and his wartime audience had earned the right to react in kind.

Our image of the military may change with the times, but some things never do. While urging Woodrow to run for mayor, the nominee who spoke on his behalf in front of the townspeople prophetically tells him, “Politics is a very peculiar thing . . . If they want you, they want you. They don’t need reasons anymore. They find their own reasons.” We get more than our share of laughs watching a Preston Sturges film, but Sturges always gets the last one. 

© Jon Oye, 2012

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