Screwball Success

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Review of 'Hail the Conquering Hero', director Preston Sturges

An anthology of the best films made by American director Preston Sturges will be released for the first time on DVD over the next few months. None of these movies are very well known outside the film world and that is not entirely surprising since most of them were made over a very short period between 1940 and 1945. Sturges's work, however, was highly influential - he was one of the first of the Hollywood screenwriters to break the directorial mould when, in 1939, he sold the rights for his original screenplay, The Great McGinty, for one dollar in exchange for the studio agreeing to let him direct as well as write the movie.

Over the next five years, Sturges produced a series of comedy masterworks, combining zipping dialogue with lark-about action. He virtually invented what later became known as the 'screwball' comedy, which was most associated with the immediate post-war era but was also very evident in the work of later directors such as Billy Wilder and the Coen Brothers. The latter openly admit their indebtedness to Sturges - in one of his movies, Sullivan's Travels (about an aspiring film director like himself), he dreams about making a film of 'stark realism' about the nation's social ills to be called 'Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?'

The first of the Sturges movies to be re-released is Hail the Conquering Hero, a very funny but not very patriotic satire on political corruption, sentimentality and hypocrisy in small town America. This was quite an audacious statement to make, especially since the film was put on general release in 1944 at the height of the USA's conflict in the Pacific. Perhaps the most important line in the entire film is when the reluctant hero with the ridiculous handle, Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, owns up to everyone in his home town that he has never been in the Marines, 'never been in Guadalcanal or anywhere else', and saying, 'I've told you all this because too many men have bled and died for you... and for me... to live this lie any longer.'

Despite its controversial slant, Hail the Conquering Hero was a major success - a George Galloway moment which endorsed the central message of the film that people should stand up for what they believe in. Perhaps emboldened by this response, Sturges went one step further in his next movie, The Great Moment - in which he lashed out at 'generals on horseback, tyrants, usurpers, dictators, politicians who send people to dismemberment and death'. This time the studio thought he had gone a bit far - as one critic noted, 'Paramount probably would have found Sturges's prologue completely unacceptable under any circumstances, but in times of war it was considered tantamount to treason.'