August 14, 1944 [Hail the Conquering Hero]

Preston Sturges's movies pull off a unique stunt: They barnstorm at you like the silent comedies used to, with completely satisfying caricatures sketched on the run by acrobatic actors--our old pal Hollywood keeping us in our seats--but with a strange sense that we're being kidded for watching. It isn't outright cynicism; more like a side-door opening, letting in a solid bar of light, pinning down some fool--politicians, mostly, and the strident "civic pride" the citizenry brings when it knocks together a bandwagon.

I'm not complaining: I like Hail the Conquering Hero's noise and bluster. The recurring business with the town's various bands is pure corn-pone chaos, as though Ives' Three Places in New England were composed in a Tilt-A-Whirl. And the Marines with fifteen cents to their name, making like Katzenjammer Kids at table, as William Demarest's Sarge makes--all right, invents--history. But most of all is long-suffering Eddie Bracken, that perfect profile of his giving him the air of a trapped parrot forced to squawk a fairy-tale of heroism to ease his worried mother--but the story gets blown up like a Japanese island, so that you can't tell friend from foe, hero from stooge.

Sturges thumbs his nose at the home front (albeit affectionately: I've never seen Edgar Pangborn given so much eventual dignity--or what passes for it in that man's harried little world). But Sturges also bows low to his leatherneck heroes, until the camera turns thankfully away from the cheering crowd at the train station and gazes with admiration at the troops, tall in a row, saluting the fools they're willing to die for. It's clear Sturges feels he has nothing to tell the Marines--but plenty to me waving on the platform as the train takes them back to the front.


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