Classic Pick of the Week: “Sullivan’s Travels”

“Sullivan’s Travels” protagonist, filmmaker John L. Sullivan, is tired of making comedies. The Great Depression has yet to rest its boot heels on the shores of World War II, and all this suffering and pain around him has him convinced that he has to make “serious pictures,” the kind that seek to examine Who We Are Now, to put a human face on misery. And so he devises an excursion into the trenches of poverty. He sheds his wealthy lifestyle and clothes and books a one-way ticket to Skid Row in the guise of a hobo to discover how the lower half lives.

Such is the set-up for one of Hollywood’s warmest and most endearing satires, which arrives in a sparkling new Blu ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection. For writer and director Preston Sturges (1898-1959), it is merely one jewel on a string of them that he beaded together In the years between 1940 and 1944. That period saw the filmmaker make eight films, each one coming on the heels of the other at such a hurried pace that it seemed Sturges sought to outrun any chance of failure.

But there would be failure ahead. Frequent spats between Sturges and Paramount Pictures, a couple box-office flops, and a fight over the casting and release dates of his films gave way to a stark decline. In his fight for financial and creative independence, he’d find himself near bankruptcy and in trouble with the IRS in the early ‘50s, though at one point he had been the third highest-paid person in the U.S. By 1959, he’d be dead at 60 years old.

It’s as dramatic and tragic a fall as one can imagine for such a talented artist, but for viewers today, we mostly remember that joyful spring, and “Sullivan’s Travel’s” qualities have yet to wilt.

The film is an inspired and shrewd response to some of Sturges’s contemporaries who began to dispense with the funny. In his memoirs, Sturges wrote, “After I saw a couple of pictures put out by my fellow comedy-directors, which seemed to have abandoned the fun in favor of the message, I wrote ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ to satisfy an urge to tell them that they were getting a little too deep-dish, to leave the preaching to the preachers.”

Of course in just about any competent film lay some sort of message for the viewer to digest, and “Sullivan’s Travels” seems to offer one up simply enough. Before long, “Sully” (a pleasantly deadpan Joel McCrea) has been robbed of his possessions, knocked unconscious and thrown into a chain gain. There he is exposed to the full powers of laughter, courtesy of a disarmingly moving scene set in a black rural church in which a Disney cartoon is screened for the churchgoers and its poor visitors.

The episode is enough for Sully to realize at the end, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”

But “Make ‘em laugh” is hardly a suitable summation for a film of such varied and assured tones. There is amusing slapstick in the film (the mad chase between the studio head’s land yacht and a boy’s hot rod). The Sturges dialogue is like heated ping-pong matches, the zingers and quips arriving so quickly and easily our ears can barely keep up.  The film takes wonderful jabs at Hollywood excess, priorities and pretension. In Sullivan’s aims to get close to poverty, we’re reminded of King Vidor’s aim to capture the “real Negro” in 1929’s all-black musical “Hallelujah” and in George Gershwin’s journey to the South to research black culture for his 1934 musical opera “Porgy and Bess.”

Sullivan’s arrogance and obtuseness is seen clearly and with much amusement, but Sturges puts on a face as stoic as McCrea’s for that majestic church scene, and in an earlier, mostly silent twilight stroll through a shanty town and its inhabitants.

In these scenes and others, Sturges manages to weave a social statement on racial divisions, poverty, and systemic failings with a grace that a ‘serious” movie even today might have stumbled over.

But Sturges’ best films display the ability to never stumble, no matter how quickly things are moving. To aid him he has McCrea, whose presence doesn’t upstage the grimness of his surroundings, and that great blonde Veronica Lake as “The Girl,” an aspiring actress who regards both McCrea and her troubles with an almost indifferent amusement.

These qualities, when put together, equal an enduring work of both substance and shenanigans, and in its careful balancing of the two, Sturges reveals that though he may decry the desire to make movies that are “important,” in the back of his mind, he likely knew that in his brief but brilliant career, that was exactly what he was doing.  

Editor’s Note: The author, Marc Rivers, was sent this movie to review courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

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