HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO is one of the funniest screwball ensemble comedies of all time. It's also one of the best cinematic examples of the "snowball effect" where a small action has consequences that get bigger and bigger until it's nearly out of control.
Eddie Bracken grew up in a small town in the shadow of his late father who was a great war hero who died in the field of battle the day Eddie was born. Eddie's wanted nothing more in his life than to join the Marines. When he gets old enough he joins, but is then 4-F'd for "chronic hay fever". That was over a year ago and ever since he's been working in a shipyard too embarrassed to return home or even tell his mother. One night he's drowning his sorrows in a bar when in walk 6 broke Marines on leave. He buys them a round of drinks and a conversation strikes up. Before you know it the Marines have concocted a plan to get him home to his mother: dress him up as a war hero and escort him home, then after a few days they leave and he returns to civilian life...that's not the best plan ever, but their hearts are bigger than their brains. The next day in the sober sunlight their plan doesn't sound so great when the train arrives in town and not only is Eddie's mother there, but the entire town and not one but four marching bands all playing different songs at once! And that's just the start of the snowball! By the end of the day the town's folk are marching up and down the street with signs and torches loudly singing songs about how they want Eddie to be the new mayor! They also burned the mortgage note on his mother's house and are taking donations to erect a statue of him in the town square. To complicate matters even worse his ex-girlfriend (who still loves him) is now engaged to the current mayor's son. From beginning to end the entire thing is just a frenzy of people running around like mad, talking and shouting over each other. It's hilarious and even at moments very touching.
All of the films Preston Sturges wrote and directed between 1941 and 1944 were masterpieces. Most of the credit goes to Sturges and his amazing scripts, but we can't forget Sturges regular actors who appeared in all of his films during this period (very useful chart here). Of his 38 regulars 22 starred in this film.
I can't recommend this movie enough. I've seen it dozens of times and one of the things I like to do now to keep it fresh is pick out one actor and just watch them the entire time whether they're speaking or not. I think the best to watch is Ella Raines, mainly because she's beautiful, but also because her reactions all of the crazy stuff stuff going on around her is priceless. One question I do have that I doubt will ever get answered is: during Mayor Noble's speech at the train station if you watch Ella's character she's holding a bouquet of "del-fuminimums". During the madness she turns a few times and each time the tip of the flowers rubs Franklin Pandborn's face. Was that planned or did it just happen? Either way Franklin plays it smooth and his facial expressions are amusing.
Every time Eddie sneezes I can't help but think of "Spots! Spots!" from THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK.