Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) is a satirical comedy/drama written and directed by Preston Sturges, starring Eddie Bracken, Ella Raines and William Demarest, and featuring Raymond Walburn, Franklin Pangborn, Elizabeth Patterson and Bill Edwards.
Sturges was nominated for a Academy Award for his screenplay. Many critics consider the film to be one of Sturges' best. It was the eighth film he made for Paramount Pictures, and also his last, although The Great Moment was released after it. Sturges later wrote about his departure "I guess Paramount was glad to be rid of me eventually, as no one there ever understood a word I said."
After a chance encounter in a bar in which he buys a round of drinks for six Marines headed by Sergeant Heppelfinger (William Demarest), the group decides to return Woodrow to his home, so his mother will not have to keep worrying about him. The Marines, to the chagrin of Woodrow, encourage the charade by loaning him their medals.
Unfortunately, word leaks out, and when they step off the train, the seemingly-harmless deception has escalated beyond control; the entire town turns out to greet its homegrown hero. With an election coming up, the citizens decide to make an unwilling Woodrow their candidate against the pompous current mayor, Mr. Noble (Raymond Walburn). Complicating matters even further, Woodrow had written his girlfriend Libby (Ella Raines), telling her not to wait for him. She had since gotten engaged to Forrest Noble (Bill Edwards), the mayor's son.
Finally, Woodrow can stand it no longer. He confesses everything at a campaign rally and goes home to pack. Ella breaks her engagement and tells Woodrow she is going with him. Meanwhile, Heppelfinger praises Woodrow's courage in telling the truth to the stunned townsfolk, and after considering the matter, they decide that Woodrow has just the qualities they need in a mayor.
Hail the Conquering Hero had a number of working titles on its way to the screen. An early title was "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition", and "Once Upon a Hero" and "The Little Marine" were also used.
Although The Great Moment, which had been filmed before Hail the Conquering Hero, was released after it, this film was the last that Sturges made for Paramount Pictures, as his contract ran out and he left the studio even before the film was completely edited. He and the studio had numerous conflicts over editorial control, censorship problems and other issues on The Great Moment and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. The studio also balked at Sturges' repeated use of the same bit actors again and again in most of his Paramount films, what has been called his "stock company" or "repertory troupe." The studio was concerned that people would get tired of seeing the same faces, and wanted Sturges to use different actors, which he refused to do: "I always replied that these little players who had contributed so much to my first hits had a moral right to work in my subsequent pictures."
There was also conflicts with the studio about this film: Paramount wanted actress Ella Raines, who was playing "Libby", to be replaced: not only did they feel she didn't look like a small-town girl, but she didn't have enough box-office draw, and with the other lead roles being taken by Bracken and Demarest, the studio was concerned that the film wouldn't have enough star power to be effectively sold. But filming had already started, and Sturges refused to replace her.
I said that had [producer] Buddy [DeSylva] been there and objected to her casting at its inception, I would of course have agreed. But to have her thrown off the picture after she had been announced for the part and had started shooting, with all the publicity that engendered, would ruin her career. It seems very unimportant now whether she was kept in or thrown out. It seemed very important then. I had read Cervantes. I should have known about tilting at windmills.(Raines' career didn't last long in any event: she retired in 1957.)
It was customary at the time for the War Department to review scripts which dealt with military matters, but the revisions they requested were minor. Filming began on Hail the Conquering Hero on 14 July , and continued through 11 September of that year. Sturges had designed the film to be relatively small scale, and he re-used sets left over from The Miracle of Morgan's Creek.
After an unsuccesful preview in New York City, the film was recut by producer Buddy G. DeSylva, as Sturges had already left Paramount. After another unsuccessful preview – and, not coincidentally, after The Miracle of Morgan's Creek had been released and become a smash hit – DeSylva accepted Sturges' offer to return, unpaid, and rewrite the script. Retakes, directed by Sturges, were done on the 7th through 11th of April , and Sturges restored his overall conception of the film.
The film was released on 9 August 1944. Sharp-eyed viewers may have noted that in the scene where the Marines leave the Oakdale station, a billboard behind them advertises The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, the film that Sturges made, also starring Eddie Bracken, immediately before this one.
Reviews were uniformly excellent, with Bosley Crowther writng in the New York Times that it was "one of the wisest [movies] ever to burst from a big-time studio." Sturges exulted that, "It proves that a good story can lick its weight in stars and pomposity any day."
The film can be seen as a look at both patriotism and hero worship in America durig World War II, and while adhering to the requirements of the Hollywood Production Code – even more restrictive in wartime than before – in retrospect it can be seen as somewhat critical of people's willingness at that time to uncritically embrace heroes. In this regard it is a companion piece to The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, the previous Sturges satirical venture.