Sturges was nominated for a 1945 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."
In 2015, the United States Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry, finding it "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) is a small town boy whose father, "Hinky Dinky" Truesmith, was a Marine who died a hero in World War I. Woodrow has been discharged from the Marine Corps after only a month owing to his chronic hay fever. Rather than disappoint his mother (Georgia Caine), he pretends to be fighting overseas in World War II while secretly working in a San Diego shipyard.
In a chance encounter in a bar he buys a round of drinks for six Marines back from the Battle of Guadalcanal headed by Master Gunnery Sergeant Heffelfinger (William Demarest). It transpires that Heffelfinger had served with Woodrow's father in the 6th Marines in World War I. One of the Marines decides to telephone Woodrow's mother, telling her that he has received a medical discharge, so she will not have to worry about him. Woodrow is vehemently opposed to the fraud, but the Marines are all for it. Heffelfinger embellishes the charade by having Woodrow swap coats with one of the Marines that have the 1st Marine Division Battle Blaze and Pacific Theatre of Operations medals on it.
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 has 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. Libby breaks her engagement and tells Woodrow she is going with him. Meanwhile, Heffelfinger 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.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
Cast notes:This was the second and last time that Preston Sturges and Eddie Bracken worked together on a feature film. Their first was The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, which immediately preceded it.
Many members of Sturges' unofficial "stock company" of character actors appear in Hail the Conquering Hero, among them George Anderson, Al Bridge, Georgia Caine, Chester Conklin, Jimmy Conlin, William Demarest, Harry Hayden, Esther Howard, Arthur Hoyt, George Melford, Torben Meyer, Charles R. Moore, Frank Moran, Jack Norton, Franklin Pangborn, Victor Potel, Dewey Robinson and Robert Warwick. This was also the second of three films that Raymond Walburn did with Sturges: he did Christmas In July and would go on to do The Sin of Harold Diddlebock.
This was the ninth of ten films written by Preston Sturges that William Demarest appeared in (see note).
Hail the Conquering Hero was the first film made by ex-boxer Freddie Steele, "The Tacoma Assassin", but its release was held up for so long, seven other films that Steele appeared in had already reached the public by that time.
Aside from songs associated with the military, such as "Mademoiselle from Armentieres" by Harry Carlton and Joe Tunbridge and "Halls of Montezuma", music by Jacques Offenbach, Hail the Conquering Hero contains two original songs by Preston Sturges:"Home to the Arms of Mother" - music and lyrics by Preston Sturges, orchestral arrangement by Charles W. Bradshaw, vocal arrangements by Joseph J. Lilley
"We Want Woodrow" - music and lyrics by Preston Sturges, arranged by Charles W. Bradshaw
Other songs in the film include two written by Frank Loesser and Robert Emmett Dolan: "Have I Stayed Away Too Long" and "Gotta Go to Jailhouse".
The score also contains excerpts from "Hail the Conquering Hero" from Judas Maccabeus by George Frideric Handel.
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 were 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 did not look like a small-town girl, but she did not have enough box-office draw, and with the other lead roles being taken by Bracken and Demarest, the studio was concerned that the film would not 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 did not 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 1943, 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 unsuccessful 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 11 April 1944, 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 writing 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."
Hail the Conquering Hero was released on video on 15 November 1990, on laserdisc on 26 October 1994, and was re-released on video on 30 June 1993. It was released on DVD (as part of a seven disc set entitled "Preston Sturges - The Filmmaker Collection") on November 21, 2006.
Sturges was nominated for a 1945 Academy Award for his screenplay for Hail the Conquering Hero, and was nominated in the same category that same year for his screenplay for The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. In addition, the picture was nominated by the National Board of Review as "Best Picture of 1944", and Eddie Bracken and Franklin Pangborn won "Best Acting" awards from the Board. The New York Times named the film one of the "Ten Best Films of 1944".
One writer described Hail the Conquering Hero as "a satire on mindless hero-worship, small-town politicians, and something we might call "Mom-ism," the almost idolatrous reverence that Americans have for the institution of Motherhood," and Sturges himself said that of all his films, it was "the one with the least wrong with it." The film has the normal hallmarks of Sturges' best work: an extremely fast pace, overlapping dialogue, and rapid-fire punch lines. Monty Python's Terry Jones called it "like a wonderful piece of clockwork."
The film can be seen as a look at both patriotism and hero worship in America during 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.