Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) movie poster

director Preston Sturges
viewed: 01/02/2017

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.

Great stuff.

The Great McGinty (1940)

The Great McGinty (1940) movie poster

director Preston Sturges
viewed: 01/01/2017

The Great McGinty was Preston Sturges’s first film as director and quickly establishes him as a comic yet incredibly cynical voice in a Hollywood full of happy endings.

McGinty starts in an unnamed “banana republic” where a man down on his luck and low on drink attempts suicide. The bartender (a terrific Brian Donlevy) dissuades him and then regales him and a young woman with his own tale of woe, noting that he was once a governor somewhere in America.

The flashback takes us to a soup line, and Daniel McGinty (Donlevy), another grizzled, hungry face in that line. Turns out, to earn their soup and $2, the local muckymucks want the unwashed masses to go and vote their candidate for mayor. McGinty votes 37 times and wins the eye of “The Boss” (Akim Tamiroff) and a place in his organization. The Boss eventually sets McGinty up as mayoral and gubernatorial material. All this would be well-and-good, but McGinty develops a conscience through his marriage of convenience (Muriel Angelus) and his integrity brings them all down.

While McGinty does the right thing, he still winds up in a foreign land, serving beer, abandoning his wife (though leaving her money for her and her kids). The final scene sees him brawling with Tamiroff (who is also an ex-pat prison escapee). No Hollywood happy ending, though sort of a gag. It delivers a very bitter message about American politics and serves a rather scathing moral if moral at all.

Like his later and brilliant Sullivan’s Travels (1941), McGinty casts an eye to the world of the poor, the masses who at the time would be hitting the cinemas for escapist Hollywood fare. Donlevy is a tough mug, right out of a crime flick or later noir, rather than the charming leading man. This is oddly refreshing, like casting different characters from alternate genres into new situations almost.

I’ve got enough Sturges under my belt now to have a real feel for him, and right now, next to Sullivan’s Travels (which I really want to see again), I think The Great McGinty is my second favorite.

Maybe that just shows my own cynicism in liking cynicism.

Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

Unfaithfully Yours (1948) movie poster

director Preston Sturges
viewed: 04/19/2016

I’m still working my way through Preston Sturges, and thusly I am still working my way to reckoning my overall feelings about him.  The first of his films I saw was the absolutely terrific Sullivan’s Travels (1941).  The next of his films I saw was The Lady Eve (1941) which had some qualities, but I felt it flopped hard on Henry Fonda, who just didn’t feel right in the comic lead.  More recently, I watched The Palm Beach Story (1942), which was a lot of fun and featured Joel McCrea who had also starred in Sullivan’s Travels.

Why say all this before saying a word about Unfaithfully Yours?  I think because Unfaithfully Yours, while having a lot of interesting things in it, actually being really interesting and clever overall, falls flattest when asking star Rex Harrison to be particularly funny in a physical manner.  It’s been several years since watching Fonda in The Lady Eve but that’s my key memory of the film is him just landing hard and flat.  Maybe Sturges is best when he’s got the right actor in place.  Maybe that’s not always Joel McCrea?

Unfaithfully Yours is a dark screwball comedy about a famous musical conductor (Harrison) who comes to suspect his wife Daphne (Linda Darnell) of cheating on him with his his valet (Kurt Kreuger).  These suspicions are sprung upon him much against his personal belief but eventually take over his mind, which leads him into fantasies of murder and revenge, all set to musical numbers he is conducting at a live concert.

These three fantasies are the film’s most interesting conceit, each coming as the camera zooms into Harrison’s eye as the musical number he is conducting gets underway and then cuts to a scene supposedly post-concert.  The first of these isn’t entirely clearly a fantasy until some ways in as the plot becomes arch and silly, following a convoluted set-up of recording himself with a acetate record machine and then slashing his wife and framing his valet.  The murder itself is kind of shocking and brutal (even if happening out of frame) and this flavors the film with its darkness.

As each sequence starts anew, we come to recognize the fantasy as fantasy, but when the concert ends, Harrison hurries back to his apartment to attempt to live out each of the strange delusions, failing miserably with each and busting up the apartment as he struggles with technology in what could have been funny, but falls, as I’ve said, flat.

It’s weird because Harrison is good in other sequences and scenes, but I the big finale flops for me, lessening the film.  Overall, it’s very interesting, even its dark tenor, which could be ripe for analysis could have worked.

Apparently this was late in Sturges’s career, having switched studios from Paramount to Twentieth Century Fox in a deal while not as disastrous as Buster Keaton’s move, was apparently a death knell for Sturges overall.

Like I said, I’m still trying to get my read on Sturges.  More to come.

The Palm Beach Story (1942)

The Palm Beach Story (1942) movie poster

director Preston Sturges
viewed: 11/27/2015

I watch a ridiculous amount of movies.  Well, maybe not as ridiculous an amount as some people I follow on Letterboxd, but I have 2 kids and a full-time job and other interests as well.  And I try to write about each one that is a feature film.

This excuse is made in reference to the many types of films I enjoy and explore and how I haven’t watched a Preston Sturges film in 7 years.  Back in 2008, I watched the terrific Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and the lesser but still pretty great The Lady Eve (also 1941) and then…seven years of lots of other stuff.  Heck, the last film I just watched was the first Federico Fellini film I’d seen in the same interim.  It’s a bit of a thing in my film-watching.

The Palm Beach Story stars Joel McCrea (who was great in Sullivan’s Travels) and Claudette Colbert, one of the Screwball Comedy’s best leading comediennes.  It fits nicely into the subset of the Screwball Comedy which deal with a married man and wife whose marriage is up for inspection, playing heck with the institution while usually winding up right back in the arms of one another in the end.  In this case, Colbert and McCrea are unhappy in their nearing poverty.  He’s never made it big with his crazy innovative ideas and she is a woman who likes to live well and won’t do for living cheap and meager and openly expresses it.

In fact, the story opens as they are about to be put on the street, saved by a strange little rich guy, only giving over for Colbert to realize her best bet is a quick divorce and to land a new shiny rich husband.  She loves McCrea and wants to do well by him by getting whoever her new hubby will be to help him out with his crazy plan for a suspended airport above a major city.  She jumps a train full of rich drunks with guns for Palm Beach, Florida and the wackiness ensues.

She meets, of all people, Rudy Vallee, the squarest of squares, a nearly infinitely rich guy with seriously lacking social skills.  And while she woos him, McCrea swings down to try to win her back.  I won’t ruin it for you in going over the ins and outs of the plot or its most bizarre and hilarious ending but I will say it’s great stuff.

McCrea plays a bit of a stiff compared to Colbert who really gets the best lines and gags and moments.  Mary Astor has a small but pretty funny role as Vallee’s sister.

All I can say is it’s time to line up more Preston Sturges in my queue.

The Lady Eve

The Lady Eve (1941) movie poster

(1941) dir. Preston Sturges
viewed: 12/31/08

After watching and really enjoying Sullivan’s Travels (1941) by director Preston Sturges, I was eager to see another of his films.  And what with my little roll of Barbara Stanwyck films, The Lady Eve seemed pretty ideal for viewing.  And it is.

While nowhere as satisfying or interesting as Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve is a pretty fun comedy about the battle of the sexes, featuring Henry Fonda as a millionaire reptile researcher with little experience with the females of his species and Barbara Stanwyck as a wise grifter, travelling with a pair of card sharps, looking to fleece the ship that they all meet up on.  Sturges mixes physical comedy with the verbal snappiness that Screwball comedies made so much fun.  And he populates his cast with solid extras and minor roles with sharp, witty actors who keep the whole thing afloat.  It’s a fun time.  And the best of it is Stanwyck.

She delivers her lines of ascerbic barbs and her moments of gushing pathos with a force and timing that is sharp and fun.  She’s an excellent star, a solid actress, and a great personality.  Oddly enough, the down side to this film is Fonda, who plays a dull-witted dupe, who’s a stiff as well, and he plays his so stiff that he’s just not any fun.  I was actually imagining Jimmy Stewart in the role with the ability to play this kind of a role and add charm to it.  I guess I’ve never been a particular fan of Fonda, and this film certainly didn’t add to my interest.

It actually may be a bit to do with the script, because Sturges has “the lady Eve” as the sharp-witted, wise-to-the-action gal, and Fonda’s character is just a dupe as her mate.  “The lady Eve” may be the seductress but Pike (Fonda) is a fish in a barrel, no match, no balance for the battle of the sexes.  He’s unarmed.  And she’s got it all.  Maybe that is Sturges’ point here, but it doesn’t make for as interesting a repartee.

And all that is not to say that it isn’t good fun, nonetheless.

Sullivan’s Travels

Sullivan's Travels (1941) movie poster

(1941) dir. Preston Sturges
viewed: 11/28/08

Well, I’ve broken through on another important director whose films I had up til now never seen.  Preston Sturges is a much loved and hailed writer/director of Hollywood comedies, and it’s crazy that I’ve just now finally seen one.

Sullivan’s Travels is an excellent film, at times somewhat of the class of the rapid-fire dialogue that the Screwball Comedy came known for, but at others a far more physical style of Slapstick, too.  And beyond that, it’s also a film of social criticism, in some ways dramatic and significant like a Frank Capra film.  So, it’s a lot of things in one.  And all of it good.

Starring Joel McCrea and Veronica (What a babe!) Lake, it’s solidly helmed on every front, with top-notch talent and game cast.  McCrea plays the titular Sullivan, a successful Hollywood director of broad comedies who yearns to make a serious film about the downtrodden.  When his studio and his valets suggest that he doesn’t really know what it means to be poor and down-and-out, he decides to hit the road, disguised as a hobo.

His first few efforts are stalled out, bringing him back to Hollywood without any genuine experience, though he does manage to stumble on the gorgeous Lake in a coffee shop, who offers to buy him breakfast, even though she is a failed actress, about to return back East.  They end up striking out together and they eventually get enough of the experience to satisfy Sullivan’s exploration and return to Hollywood.  But, when Sullivan goes out with $1000 in $5 bills, handing them out to the poor and homeless, in an anonymous attempt to repay his education, he’s knocked unconscious and stuck on a train down South, where he winds up arrested and jailed in a tough labor camp.

Well, there is a lot more to the story, but the laughable and ignorant attempt to understand the “real” social issues actually allows Sturges to demonstrate the plights of the poor himself, somewhat reflexively to his character Sullivan.  The whole film has much reflexivity in it, as it begins with an action sequence atop a speeding locomotive that ends with “The End”.  Is this the end of the movie?  No, it’s just a preview screening of Sullivan’s latest film in a screening room with the producers and studio executives.

There is much name-dropping and joking about stars and directors and studios in the rapid-fire dialogue that opens the film.  It makes you wonder if Sturges really went through such a conflict, since he himself was known for comedies, and utilized this narrative and title character to play out a fantasy (and reality) of his to make a film that had a serious social aspect, portraying the plight of the poor.  It also includes a very atypically positive portrayal of African Americans in a scene in a church, though earlier on there is a cook character who seems more typical of the Stepin Fetchit category.

All in all, an excellent movie that succeeds at its many aspects of verbal and physical comedy, as well as a heartfelt drama.

Additionally, the movie that Sullivan wants to make is “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, which was cheekishly usurped by the Coen brothers into one of their most entertaining films.  A nice touch.