director Preston Sturges
The best thing about Hail the Conquering Hero may be all the screentime given to William Demarest, staple of Preston Sturges movies and prime character actor. Here Demarest is Sgt. Heffelfinger, leader of a gaggle of marines on leave when they run into downtrodden Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken), son of a marine war hero, but discharged from service for hay fever. Good natured drunken antics lead them all back to Truesmith’s small town home where white lies about his heroism turn into big trouble and a mayoral candidacy.
It’s quite amazing how Sturges pulls off criticisms of blind faith, hero worship, politics, and more in a war-time movie. It’s actually quite a decent pairing with Sturges’s The Great McGinty (1940) which also looks at mayoral machines in motion. But for that matter, it may pair with any number of other Sturges films from his all too brief run as director at Paramount.
The lovely Ella Raines plays his love interest, and the film is heavily populated with Sturges’s gang of background character actors. Demarest shines in many a Sturges film, but here, he’s closer to the spotlight as the loud, good-natured Sergeant Heffelfinger.
I don’t know if it’s fair or not to consider Sturges subversive exactly. His tone and cynicism, at least in quite scathing satire, strikes a unique pose in Hollywood fare of the era.
His comedy is laced with commentary, not as zinging as Howard Hawks but trenchant and surprising.