Saturday, December 28, 2013

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

WHO: Edith Head designed the costumes for this film.

WHAT: The last film Preston Sturges wrote and directed while at Paramount is one of my favorites. It starts in a San Francisco saloon called the Dog Watch, where a group of six busted marines just back from Guadalcanal make the acquaintance of a legacy Marine (born the day his father died at Belleau Wood) named Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith. Truesmith (played by Eddie Bracken) has just spent a year pretending to be overseas after a medical discharge (hayfever) cut short his military career after just one month. Soon all seven men are heading to his hometown of Oakhurst, California, where he'll finally reunite with his mother (Georgia Caine) and former sweetheart (Ella Raines) while the other six eagerly perpetuate the fiction that he was a hero among their company- especially since it gives them an opportunity for free food and lodging during their five-day leave. Things only get more and more out of hand from there, and somehow Sturges is able to walk a tightrope between portraying portraying military men as noble and patriotism as a form of insanity.

WHERE/WHEN: 3:30 and 7:30 today and tomorrow at the Stanford Theatre.

WHY: Although I mention Edith Head above, this is probably not one of the top ten or twenty or fifty or maybe even one hundred films that fans of classic Hollywood would point to as one of her most significant career milestones. But Sturges stuffs his frames with huge numbers of bodies, each character and extra representing perfectly an aspect of American society, and each of them needing just the right outfit to quickly express that aspect. Bracken's own costuming (in uniform or out) is a crucial element of the plot, and the attractive dresses Head is best known for are certainly on display on the Dog Watch's tap dancer and chanteuse, and on the lovely Raines.

Head's several hundred credits as costumer could make a fine introduction to Hollywood "A-pictures" from the 1930s to 1970s. The prolific Head worked in just about every genre and every studio, and with many of the classic era's top stars and directors. A complete Edith Head retrospective sounds like the punchline to a film programming in-joke, but it really would be a thing to behold, even if it took a year or more to unfold. Since it'd never happen, I'll just point out the films with her credit that are screening in the coming weeks. After Hail the Conquering Hero, the next film bearing her imprint to screen locally will be Breakfast At Tiffany's starring Audrey Hepburn, at the Castro on New Year's Day. The following week on January 9th the New Parkway screens King Creole to celebrate its star Elvis Presley's birthday the day before. And just last night the Paramount Theatre in Oakland announced its next three 35mm classic film screenings, and two out of three of them are among Head's most famous among her thrity-five Academy Award-nominated films. January 17 the venue will show To Catch A Thief with Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, and February 28 it will screen Roman Holiday, another film starring Hepburn, that won Head her fifth of eight Oscars. The odd film out on the Paramount schedule is Dirty Harry which screens January 31st; its costumes were picked out by Clint Eastwood's regular wardrobe man until 1992, Glenn Wright.

HOW: Hail the Conquering Hero screens on a 35mm double-bill with the Marx Brothers in A Day at the Races.

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