Hail Preston Sturges, the king of screwball comedy, whose string of subversive films from 1939 to 1943 rank among Hollywood’s funniest ever.
Hail the Conquering Hero is the story of a pitiful discard from the Marines (Eddie Bracken) who, helped and forced by a group of marines just back from Guadalcanal, returns as a false hero to his mother and his girl and his home town just before a local election, is put up for mayor against his guilty will, endures a day of comic-satiric hell which includes three extraordinary civic speeches, and at length, in an awful public confession, makes a genuine hero of himself. It is a bewilderingly skillful picture, and the skill is used no more brilliantly to tell the story than to cover up the story’s weaknesses and those of its author, Preston Sturges.
If the story is to tell itself at all, and keep going to feature length, everything depends on the marines who befriend and bully Mr. Bracken into it. But Sturges never lets you know why they are forcing their victim through the show. What Sturges does instead, though, is both interesting and highly characteristic of him. Getting Bracken home in the first place forces him to invent one of his most arresting characters, a psychopathic marine, embodied by the ex-boxer Freddie Steele with a legendary, almost supernatural quality of serene, unfathomable, frightening energy. This marine happens to feel a maniacal reverence toward mothers, and shocked into fury by the hero’s neglect of his own mother, he sets everything moving. Once they are all in the small town and the young man is desperately eager to clear up the misunderstanding, Sturges shifts the weight to a marine sergeant played by William Demarest, whose great skill in registering a kind of daft innocence and brutal sentimentality, helped by Sturges, can make you believe anything.
Here, however, you hardly know what to believe, for Sturges takes care never to give Demarest time for more than a hint and a laugh. Unless we are to believe that the sergeant is simply so maddened by all the homely excitement that he refuses to let either himself or Bracken jump off the merry-go-round, his motives would have to be of Dostoevskian cruelty and mysteriousness to hold water at all; but of this possibility the hints are so vague that I suspect myself of supplying them. The long and the short of it is that the more you think of the evidence supplied you the less you understand why the marines are there, and why you ever believed it at all. The trick here, a favorite one with Sturges, is to keep everything so jotted, so shrewdly and ambiguously shaded, so rapid, and so briskly full of irrelevant pleasures, that you neither think nor care to, at all. Flickers of motive, most of them faked or questionable, succeed each other so restively that like the successive frames of a strip of film they create an illusory flowing image of motive which one is liable to swallow whole at the time. But in thoroughly good pieces of work there is an aesthetic and moral discipline which, however richly it indulges in certain kinds of illusion, strictly forbids itself others. It never fakes or dodges a motive, a character, an emotion, or an idea. And it never uses its power to entertain as an ace-in-the-hole against one’s objection to that sort of faking.
I’d like not to be so owlish about a picture which save me so much more delight than displeasure, but now that Sturges is being compared, I am told, with people like Voltaire – there are semi-defensible reasons to compare him with Shakespeare, for that matter – I think there is some point In putting on the brakes. Most certainly Sturges has fine comic and satiric gifts, and knows how to tell more truth than that when he thinks it expedient; but he seldom does. This film has enough themes for half a dozen first-rate American satires – the crippling myth of the dead heroic father, the gentle tyranny of the widowed mother, the predicament of the only child, the questionable nature of most heroism, the political function of returning soldiers, these are just a few; I suppose in a sense the whole story is a sort of “Coriolanus” on all fours. But not one of these themes is honored by more attention than you get from an incontinent barber in a railway terminal, and the main theme, which I take to be a study of honor, is dishonored by every nightingale in Sturges’s belfry. When Bracken makes his strongly written, beautifully spoken confession, his fellow-townsmen, persuaded by the sergeant and their own best citizen, promptly make him mayor. This is doubtless supposed to pass as irony, since the townspeople and by implication the general audience, not to say the American voting public, are represented as incurable jackasses. But jackasses or not, people in small towns don’t reward virtue in any such way; so I’m sorry to see them rewarding Mr. Sturges.
The small-town types themselves, by the way, smartly cast and dressed and detailed and edited as they are, are very little nearer genuine small-town than Broadway is. The Mayor is so well played by Raymond Walburn that It is impossible to take him simply as a meaningful figure of satire. The hero’s girl (Ella Raines), after some well and cruelly drawn phases of mixed motive, comes through solid gold when he is at his nadir. The two bits which best survive all of Sturges’s deviousness are a paralyzingly high-charged, many-sided moment in which Bracken hits the psychopath, and Franklin Pangborn’s unemphasized, terribly sad, and revealing shifts of face as he reflects Bracken’s confession in the depths of the character he plays. Sturges is by far the smartest man for casting in Hollywood; this use of Pangborn, an extremely fine actor, is the one thing that improves on his role in The Bank Dick.
Any adequate review of this remarkable movie would devote at least as much space to its unqualified praise as I have to qualifying the praise; it would have to spend more space than that, I think, getting at even a tentative explanation of why Sturges functions as he does. “Hollywood” is no explanation, surely; “Hollywood” was made for Sturges and he in turn is its apotheosis; but why? It seems to me that Sturges had reason, through his mother, to develop, as they caromed around high-Bohemian Europe during his childhood, from opera to opera and gallery to gallery, not only his singular mercurialism and resourcefulness, which come especially natural to some miserably unhappy children, but also a retching, permanently incurable loathing for everything that stank of “culture,” of “art”. I gather further that through his stepfather, a stable and charming Chicago sportsman and business man, he developed an all but desperate respect and hunger for success, enhanced by a sickening string of failures as a business man and inventor up to the age of about thirty; and that this again assumed the dimensions of a complex. I believe that in his curious career as a never-quite-artist of not-quite-genius he has managed to release and guide the energies of these influences in the only way open to him.
I hesitate to write this sort of thing, drawn only from such superficialities as have appeared in print and from some remarkable photographs of Sturges as a child and young man which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post; but I risk the worse than questionable taste because I see no other way to understand what Sturges’s films are ‘about. They are wonderful as comedies and they are wonderfully complex and ingenious; they seem to me also wonderfully, uncontrollably, almost proudly corrupt, vengeful, fearful of intactness and self-commitment; most essentially, they are paradoxical marvels of self-perpetuation and self-destruction ; their mastering object, aside from success, seems to be to sail as steep into the wind as possible without for an instant incurring the disaster of becoming seriously, wholly acceptable as art. They seem to me, indeed, in much of their twisting, the elaborately counterpointed image of a neurosis. It is an especially interesting neurosis, not only because Sturges is a man of such talent and not only because it expresses itself in such fecund and in themselves suggestive images, but also because, in relation to art, it seems the definitive expression of this country at present – the stranglehold wedlock of the American female tradition of “culture,” the male tradition of “success.”
For East Is East, and West is West, and Maggie and I are out.