While there are many wartime films about homecoming, none are quite so balanced in comedy and drama as Preston Sturges’s Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). This satirical film tells the story of Woodrow, who is discharged from the military for chronic hay fever. After a chance encounter with some Marines, Woodrow finds himself at the center of a well-meaning but fabricated effort to come home a hero. Chaos and comedy ensue as the situation gets out of hand, though home isn’t exactly as Woodrow left it.
Hail the Conquering Hero was directed and written by Sturges and produced by Sturges and Buddy G. DeSylva. The film was distributed by Paramount Pictures, featuring the following cast:
- Eddie Bracken as Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith
- Ella Raines as Libby
- Raymond Walburn as Mayor Everett D. Noble
- William Demarest as Sgt. Heffelfinger
- Franklin Pangborn as Committee Chairman
- Elizabeth Patterson as Libby’s Aunt
- Georgia Caine as Mrs. Truesmith
- Al Bridge as Political Boss
- Freddie Steele as Bugsy
- Bill Edwards as Forrest Noble
- Harry Hayden as Doc Bissell
- Jimmy Conlin as Judge Dennis
- Jimmie Dundee as Cpl. Candida
- Chester Conklin as Western Union Man
- Esther Howard as Mrs. Noble
- Arthur Hoyt as Rev. Upperman
- Robert Warwick as Marine Colonel
- Torben Meyer as Mr. Schultz
- Jack Norton as Second Bandleader
- Paul Porcasi as Cafe Owner
Sturges often hired from within his unofficial stock company of character actors, and many of them make appearances in this film. This happens to be the ninth of ten films that Sturges wrote in which William Demarest is featured.
Eddie Bracken stars in the film, working with Sturges for the second and final time. Bracken’s first appearance in a Sturges film was The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), released just before Hail the Conquering Hero. Aiming for the film to be a small-scale production, Sturges re-used sets from The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; in fact, if viewers look closely, the ending scene at the train station prominently features a Miracle of Morgan’s Creek poster.
Interestingly, former World Middleweight Boxing Champion Freddie Steele appears in the role of Bugsy Walewski in this film. The film was slated to be his screen debut but its release was delayed so significantly that it wound up being his eighth screen performance.
In addition to including various wartime songs, the film features two original songs by Sturges called “Home to the Arms of Mother” and “We Want Woodrow.”
Hail the Conquering Hero progressed through many working titles during production, including Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition, Once Upon a Hero, and The Little Marine.
Production of Hail the Conquering Hero exacerbated well-established conflicts that Sturges was having with Paramount. Sturges and the studio butted heads over editorial control and censorship, in addition to the studio frowning upon his use of the same actors. Sturges saw his stock company of character actors as a key reason for his success and argued their importance. Additionally, Paramount wanted the role of Libby to be recast; however, filming had already begun at this point and Sturges refused to replace her. Hail the Conquering Hero was Sturges’s last production for Paramount; his contract ran out and he left the studio before the film was edited.
Eventually, the film played before preview audiences in New York City, though unsuccessfully. Producer DeSylva recut the film after Sturges’s departure, leading to yet another lackluster preview after the smash success of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. As a result, DeSylva accepted Sturges’ offer of an unpaid return in order to rewrite the script. Sturges directed retakes and restored the film.
Following Sturges’s return to the production, the film received uniformly positive reviews. The film tackles the themes of patriotism and hero-worship while abiding by the Hollywood Production Code and is an effective companion to The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. The film garnered Sturges an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay, in addition to him being nominated in the same category for The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. Sturges contended that of all his films, Hail the Conquering Hero was “the one with the least wrong with it.”