Thursday, April 28, 2016

Like Rolling Off A Log

The run of eight films that Preston Sturges wrote and directed at Paramount from 1940-1944 continues to inspire awe in me the older I get and I love every ounce of screwy, optimistic madness that can be found in them. Whatever the reasons were that he couldn’t sustain this streak after he moved on from the studio, the fact that such brilliance was able to spill out so fast is awe-inspiring and I still think of how my mind was blown when I first discovered these films long ago. Some are more venerated than others, of course, and it’s safe to say that THE LADY EVE and SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS are the two which are most enshrined by now. I have little problem with this. One of them I’ve even written about and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t get around to the other eventually. But certain things mean more to you as time goes on for reasons you only partly understand and I’ve reached the point that, maybe against popular opinion, HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO might very well be my favorite. I’m not saying it’s the best. I’m not saying I’m right. Even considering this over the combo of Fonda & Stanwyck in THE LADY EVE probably reveals just how screwy I am. But Quentin Tarantino has said that his favorite Sturges is either this one or the later UNFAITHFULLY YOURS so I’ve got him on my side at the very least. Though it wasn’t intended to be, HAIL was the last film made during his Paramount run so it feels like the culmination of all of his themes that had been building up until then. A main character pretending to be what he isn’t, the snowballing nature of the plot as it spins downhill, the incessant use of his mellifluous display of language (“He likes those big words,” to steal some dialogue), the manic portrayal of his many beloved character actors in the frame reaching a sort of crescendo here as if he’s trying to cram more of them into the shot than ever before. At the very least, the recent screening at Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema paired with the unknown Eddie Bracken-Veronica Lake vehicle HOLD THAT BLONDE (never released on video, but pretty good) was a chance to remember why I feel this way about it in the first place and confirm that it does warrant such a defense, even if it may never be the most canonized of his filmography.
With World War II still going strong, Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) has tried to enlist and left his hometown to join the Marines, the only thing he ever wanted to do. But long since discharged for chronic hay fever he’s merely working in a shipyard, afraid to go home and admit the truth. Until one night he meets a group of Marines on leave and with fifteen cents between them. Honored to buy them each a beer, Woodrow tells them his story and realizes that the group’s leader Sergeant Heffelfinger (William Demarest) actually knew his father “Hinky Dinky” Truesmith who was a hero back in World War I. The shell-shocked Bugsy (Freddie Steele) is furious that Woodrow has lied to his mother and immediately calls her to let her know that Woodrow is on his way home. Before he can explain his way out of it, Heffelfinger comes up with an idea that will let him quietly go back to Oakridge (the town motto: “Business as Usual”) as a hero. But word quickly spreads through the town and a massive hero’s homecoming is what greets him at the train station, along with one-time sweetheart Libby (Ella Raines) afraid to tell him about her new fiancée and the heads of the welcoming committee who come up with an idea to use Woodrow’s status as a hero to their fullest advantage, nominating him as a candidate for the town’s upcoming mayoral race.
HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO achieves a balancing act which is rather awe-inspiring as if Sturges’ goal was to tell the screwiest “Local Boy Makes Good” story imaginable. It’s a satire of Americana and all that implies--small town, apple pie, home, motherhood, the frantic and desperate pleas of the masses to latch onto anything which might promise a better future through whatever means necessary. But it also displays a genuine love for each of these concepts, as if all that’s good in America lies within the frantic, impulsive decisions made by a happy crowd. The recurring song “Home to the Arms of Mother” written by Sturges with exactly the sort of sappy lyrics you’d expect shows how it can be taken both ways, a concept that deserves to be tweaked but also venerated just as strongly. Amid the wartime dialogue (the film was shot in ’43, released in ’44) tinged with subtle propaganda to help make it perfectly acceptable for whoever was keeping tabs on those things, HAIL revels in the glories of the soldiers responsible for finally bringing Woodrow home and even within their craziness is everything the American character should be.
In contrast to the nervous weakling he played in THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK who can barely get through a conversation with Betty Hutton without stammering, Bracken’s Woodrow is actually a pretty regular guy who wants to be one of those Marines, he wants to be a hero, the honest desire to be part of a tradition which is all he’s ever known. He’s just afraid to admit the truth, ashamed that he isn’t really one of them. When first seen he’s all alone in a nightclub, isolating himself as far away from everyone else as possible. It’s as if it takes this madness for him to turn into the expected bumbling Eddie Bracken character, to start sneezing immediately when handed flowers at his homecoming and be surrounded by people in practically every single shot for the rest of the film. HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO is not only about tradition and what it means, it’s about what it needs to be for us sometimes, whether the glory of the Marines or even Libby’s annoyance when new fiancée Forrest (Bill Edwards) discusses the inevitability of the children coming with their impending union as he asks with zero romantic thought, “That’s what marriage is for, isn’t it?” This gives a certain sense of reality to the film when compared with the broader and more slapsticky MORGAN’S CREEK (shot on the same sets at the Paramount Ranch) with a sense of emotion this time around to ground things while keeping the correct manic levels.
What little we see of the big city is filled with people tired of the war and missing wherever their real home is, with a nightclub owner not at all impressed by the Marines who stop by. In comparison they’re treated like gods amidst the small town madness of Oakridge, a sort of place that presumably only ever existed in Hollywood, where we wonder how there are possibly enough houses to fit all the people cramming the streets. Four marching bands play different songs at once as Woodrow arrives creating total chaos, which seems like a perfectly normal occurrence when Franklin Pangborn is in charge. The patriotism is unquestioned only no one in the town knows what to do with it anymore so it’s just left out like that statue of General Zabriski which is there for everyone to see but mainly serves as a place for pigeons to rest and is there because it was purchased at an ironworks going out of business. All anybody knows is he’s a hero and that’s all that matters argues the sergeant, just like Woodrow, about whom the townsfolk repeatedly mention how honest he is—it’s even in the name Truesmith. The laughs in the film escalate as the logic gets more and more twisted but it also knows to calm down for the reminders of the war going on. The picture of Woodrow’s father that hangs in the living room almost seems meant for laughs, with a cockeyed smile given by the uncredited actor playing him, but the movie treats the sight with a genuine respect earned by a fallen soldier.
The town of Oakridge exists unto itself with a white picket fence seemingly in front of every house and everyone knows each other. Even the hapless mayor Everett Noble, President of the Noble Chair Company (motto: “Seats of All Descriptions”) is hardly a Mr. Potter-level villain, instead happy to keep things the way they are, wartime or not. The subtle message seems to be that under his leadership it’s a town that isn’t moving forward towards the future, ignoring the war and whatever sacrifices must be made. Unlike the all-powerful bad guys of Capra it feels like everyone, even the blowhard Everett Noble, is on the same level scrambling for their piece just like anyone else. Sturges doesn’t tweak Capra so much as use the themes of the common man going up against the establishment for his own screwy ideals. Even the speech given by Judge Dennis played by Jimmy Conlin, yet another regular face in these movies, about what is going wrong in the town feels shot in a way to mirror the soda jerk’s endless speech to Gary Cooper in Capra’s MEET JOHN DOE. But it has a goal unlike the vague John Doe campaign in that film—more than anything, action needs to be taken, even in a small town whose only connection to the outside world is the train that comes through a few times a day. As much as Bracken’s Woodrow frantically screams and the deeper he gets into his predicament while doing nothing worse than drinking cooking wine the film points up the gravity of the situation not just from the honest responses, the grateful townsfolk, the former girlfriend who can’t find any time to tell him her secret. Plus there’s the mother he’s come home to, played by Georgia Caine with all the gravity in the world with so many tears from sadness or gratitude like no one told her she was even in a comedy. As rah-rah as the film is about victory along with dialogue about food rations there are the reminders that maybe it’s all more complicated than that like a subtle indication that Woodrow might even be lucky for not having to go off to battle and deal with whatever nightmares that the mother-obsessed Bugsy has to deal with. Maybe becoming a Marine wasn’t needed for Woodrow to finally become a man after all.
Maybe this is bordering on taking the themes of HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO too seriously, ignoring the expected Sturges madness and how joyous it is just to watch this film. It all feels effortless, about as effortless as it can feel to deal with countless people in the frame at once all with screaming dialogue to get out. The plot threads of the characters mixed with the Sturges touches whether Franklin Pangborn yelling at everyone to be quiet, William Demarest coming up with an explanation out of nothing or Al Bridge’s “Political Boss” eating his meal backwards. Plus there’s the infectious nature of that “Win With Woodrow” song the crowds endlessly sing that I still can’t get out of my head. And there’s the Sturges dialogue which could be plugged in to today however you like such as Woodrow’s pleas with the crowd not to vote for him taken as false modesty (“He has a natural flair for politics”) contrasted with how the Mayor overreaches as he prepares the victory speeches he assumes he’ll give. “If they want you, they want you. They don’t need reasons anymore,” goes a key line near the end which is touching in context but of course appropriately screwy still in this day and age.
The behind the scenes problems between Sturges and Paramount during production which led to his departure from the studio ranged from the still unreleased THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK and THE GREAT MOMENT to how he refused to replace female lead Ella Raines when the bosses insisted. Paramount recut the film without him when his contract lapsed and after a disastrous preview Sturges returned even though he was off salary to fix things. Whatever was going on, HAIL features some of the best and most confident pure filmmaking by the director. The opening sequence introducing Woodrow and the Marines gradually takes its time particularly in a lengthy single take as Woodrow tells his story and recites every famous battle the Marines ever had. It’s more than a little jaw-dropping and shows how little Sturges needed to get his point across while also displaying how confident he was to simply let these moments tell the story on their own. It all builds to the freneticism once we hit the town after several long scenes setting everything up we smash into the Oakridge train station in a cut that’s almost modern in how abrupt it is—you imagine them shaving off frames in the cutting room. And it even subtly one-ups the famous long takes in MORGAN’S CREEK that follow Bracken and Betty Hutton—a few similar shots here including one involving Ella Raines and Bill Edwards walking through the manic small town life going on around them feel at least as complicated, only not as pronounced, focusing on the story more than the bravura of the camerawork. “The only amazing thing about my career in Hollywood is that I ever had one at all,” Sturges writes at the end of his association with Paramount in his autobiography which shouldn’t be an understatement but maybe looking back years later at however he pulled off these movies must have seemed like a true miracle.
And while it’s arguable how much we should talk about the seriousness underlining the slapstick in Sturges’ films it possibly came to the forefront more as his Paramount run went on—a recent viewing of his earlier CHRISTMAS IN JULY revealed it to be somewhat slight in plot but possessing more weight than I remembered, becoming genuinely emotional in a way that prefigures this film. Maybe now that I’m older I’m just noticing those things more. The closing gag of MORGAN’S CREEK includes a title card that reminds us of the old Shakespeare “…some have greatness thrust upon them” quote without getting into the consequences of that. HAIL has the greatness thrust upon the main character right up front and in some ways it’s about how all men have it in them to be a hero or display their own greatness even if it is thrust upon them and they deserve that chance to prove they can follow through on the mistake when it happens (as for the women who stand loyally beside those men…well, it was a different time). The film has a heart several of his other films don’t have, even if part of it belongs to several people who are all screaming at once. And even more than THE LADY EVE or SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS it might hold together as his best story. All the parts go together beautifully and everything pays off right down to the very end. And as embarrassing as it is to say, it’s the one Preston Sturges film which when the final line of dialogue is spoken gets me to cry. Maybe not because of the Marine, or homecoming, or love of small towns or any of that but maybe the movie reminds me of the foolish hope that everything can be OK in the end if the right mistakes are ever made.
The familiar Preston Sturges faces are at their best here from Eddie Bracken as the everyman lead to each of the supporting players, all grabbing frantically for their few seconds of dialogue just like you’d imagine Sturges would want them to do. From William Demarest as Sgt. Heffelfinger to Raymond Walburn as the Mayor, it’s some of their best roles. At the very least, it’s my favorite Pangborn performance. And with his recurring “Save your voice, Evvy,” Al Bridge, too. Boxer Freddie Steele walks off with many bits as Bugsy, again walking that tightrope of a character with a comical gimmick to the utmost seriousness. The controversial Ella Raines is continually endearing as Libby--honestly, Ella Raines is a slight favorite of mine (I like her in the noir PHANTOM LADY too) and seems the perfect choice as just the sort of girl you’d want to be waiting for you back home. Sturges even gets something out of the height difference between her and Bill Edwards but she also pops off the screen with enough flavor that you can see why Woodrow is so stuck on her even if she wasn’t so preoccupied by the matter at hand. Maybe there were never towns like Oakridge with girls like Libby waiting for their guy to come home but Ella Raines makes me believe there were.
The first time I ever encountered several of these Sturges films was at a massive Film Forum retrospective in New York long ago, way back in 1990, which felt like it opened up this entire realm of classic film that I never even knew was there. Actually, at the 2015 TCM Film Classic Festival I got to meet Film Forum head programmer Bruce Goldstein and told him how much it, and a similar Billy Wilder retro the following year, had meant to me. He looked taken aback for a moment and then asked, “Why haven’t you been back since?” Well, I have been but eventually I moved out to L.A., what can I tell you. But I’m still grateful and still try to revisit these films every now and then. Come to think of it, there is a study to be made in how Sturges approached the conceit of charade in his films compared with Wilder. But that’s for another time. HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO may not be THE LADY EVE or SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and the wartime setting does date it, after all. It still just makes me feel good like few other films in how it almost displays the pinnacle of the world as viewed by Preston Sturges but I also find it touching in ways that I can only partly understand. The final image goes back to an earlier plot point that almost seemed minor but turns out to be what the story was headed for all along, as if to explain the off-kilter grin on “Hinky Dinky” Truesmith’s portrait in the first place. A reminder of how sons try to live up to the enigma their fathers always will be. The past, after all, holds the secrets of the future. Life proceeds as it was always meant to.

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