Woodrow Truesmith (Eddie Bracken), the son of a Marine war hero from WWI, is a devotee of the Marines, and had enlisted in the hopes of living up to his family's name. Unfortunately, because of his chronic hay fever, he was discharged after a month. Ashamed of this, and unwilling to go back home and face his disgrace, he instead lied and wrote his mother that he had been sent overseas (getting a friend to mail letters from overseas), told his girlfriend Libby (Ella Raines) he had met someone else (so she could feel free to marry someone else), and took a job at a San Diego shipyard.
One night, Woodrow is sitting in a bar when a group of Marines, led by Sergeant Heppelfinger (William Demarest), come in and try to buy drinks with what little money they have (Heppelfinger tries to trade "war treasures", but the owner is having none of it). Seeing their plight, Woodrow buys them all drinks and sandwiches, and in gratitude, they join him. Woodrow, in turn, tells them his story, and they're all sympathetic - except for Bugsy (Freddie Steele), the most "troubled" of the Marines (he was shot, and hasn't fully recovered), and who doesn't like the idea of lying to their mother. So he makes a phone call to Woodrow's mother, telling her he's been wounded (Heppelfinger later changes it to a fever) and is on his way home. Woodrow is horrified, but Heppelfinger, who as it turns out served with Woodrow's late father, tells him not to worry, they'll take him home, and pretty soon, it'll all blow over.
Except it doesn't. When Woodrow and the Marines reach his home, they find a reception committee ready and waiting to honor a war hero (the other Marines have given Truesmith a uniform with medals on it), with a brass band, and the key to the city. Not only that, but the townspeople have taken it upon themselves to pay off the mortgage for Woodrow's mother. Not only that, but a group of townspeople want Woodrow to run for mayor against the current corrupt mayor. Not only that, but Libby, though she's engaged to the current mayor's son, is having second thoughts about that, and her feelings for Woodrow, which never went away, are coming back. Finally, the Marines get into the act, embellishing Woodrow's "heroics" even more, especially Bugsy, who will do anything to make sure Woodrow doesn't disappoint his mother...
This movie was the final movie Sturges made at Paramount. It was one of his biggest hits, and many critics then and now consider it one of his best films.
This film contains examples of:
- Berserk Button: Do not disrespect your mother in front of Bugsy.
- Cassandra Truth: Woodrow tries several times to tell the townspeople the truth about himself. They think he's just being modest, until he finally convinces them at the end.
- Corrupt Politician: Many of the townspeople see Mayor Noble as this; it's why they want Truesmith to be mayor in the first place.
- Description Cut: Sergeant Heppelfinger says Woodrow's return will be no big deal—they'll crowd around him so no one sees his battle slash, he'll take off his uniform when he gets home, and "nobody will be hep to nothing". Cue a cut to the train station, where seemingly the entire town has turned out to welcome Woodrow home.
- The Determinator: Bugsy. More than anyone else, he wants to make sure Woodrow doesn't disappoint anyone, least of all his mother.
- Everytown, America: Oakridge, Woodrow's fictional California hometown.
- "Fawlty Towers" Plot: Maintaining the facade that Woodrow is a war hero.
- Freudian Excuse: Bugsy. *Big* time.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Nothing in an innuendo sense, but considering the fact Sturges was making a movie questioning the nature of heroism and who we make our heroes during World War II, it's surprising he got away with it.
- Have a Gay Old Time:Woodrow Truesmith: (at the bar, referring to the band) Why don't they play something gay?Bartender: Why don't you acquire a gay viewpoint?
- Mayor Noble uses the phrase "horny hands", which used to refer to hands hardened from labor.
- I Need A Drink: Woodrow pounds one down after an ecstatic crowd supports him for mayor.Mom: Don't drink that, that's cooking wine.Woodrow: Well I'm cooked.
- I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: When Libby finally tells Woodrow she's engaged to someone else, he's overjoyed, because it means she won't be hurt when she finds out he's a fake, and he tells her how happy he is for her. Averted in that she doesn't take this news well.
- Punch-Clock Villain: The Political Boss who works for Mayor Noble.
- Seen It All: The bar owner whom Sergeant Heppelfinger tries to pay off with "war treasures".
- Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness:Doc Bissell: I said, "Ladies and gentlemen, in all the years that I have been unsuccessfully mixed into politics, this is the first and only time that I have ever seen a candidate for office - given an opportunity to prove publicly, permanently and beyond peradventure of doubt that he was honest, courageous and veracious..."Judge Dennis: That means truthful. He likes those big words.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: It's implied Bugsy is one of these.Bugsy: What's the matter?Woodrow: Oh, I don't know. I guess I had a nightmare.Bugsy: You're lucky.Woodrow: Huh?Bugsy: You're lucky you don't have them all the time...like some guys.
- Title Drop: "Hail the Conquering Hero" is one of several songs that the various bands assembled to greet Woodrow want to play.
- Verbal Tic: Mayor Noble's "I mean to say" whenever he wants to change the subject.
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: A sad posthumous example—the main reason why Woodrow is so wracked with guilt over washing out of the Marines due to hay fever is that his father was a Marine who was killed at Belleau Wood.