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.