But this is not just another Preston Sturges screwball comedy
By Todd Hill
So few would-be filmmakers who want a shot at making a legitimate motion picture ever get that chance. Of those who do, many see their film come and go without attracting much notice, and the opportunity to build on their rookie effort with a second film evaporates.
It’s a select club of movie directors who have the privilege of working regularly, crafting films that audiences line up to see because that director’s name is attached. And even these fortunate few frequently grapple with discontent, trapped making mindless comedies when what they really want is to examine deeper social issues on the screen, or perhaps vice versa.
Preston Sturges was one of the lucky ones. He remains a household name, at least among cinephiles, despite the fact that he made movies more than 70 years ago. We would do well to bestow upon his individual films — some of them, anyway — the same exalted status.
Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” impressed neither critics nor audiences upon its release in 1941, and watching it all these decades later, it’s still easy to understand why. Tonally, it’s all over the place, which it kind of had to be. The plot concerns a movie director, famed for dopey comedies like “Hey, Hey in the Hayloft” and “Ants in Your Pants of 1939,” who is practically ashamed of his success. The picture he wants to make would be called “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Wait, wasn’t that a real movie? The Coen brothers slapped the title on a 2001 film as an homage to Sturges, or perhaps it was yet another of the Coens’ inscrutable inside jokes. The picture did, however, spawn a hugely successful soundtrack replete with American roots music.
The Sully of “Sullivan’s Travels,” played by Joel McCrea, announces to his entourage of studio flunkies that he’s going undercover to research his social documentary for the ages, by dressing like a hobo and riding the rails. He hatches his plan in an opening scene remarkable for the early 1940’s, an extended, single take of rapid-fire dialogue that merits repeated viewings. It’s the first of several daring directorial flourishes in “Sullivan’s Travels,” many of which demanded more rope from a viewer than audiences expecting a typical Preston Sturges romp may have been likely to give.
But no worries, a few minutes later the film leaps into a breakneck chase sequence that’s laugh-out-loud hilarious. This is Sturges at his best, but alas, the movie never reaches these heights again. The conceit is that Sullivan’s Hollywood enablers and pamperers, who don’t exactly buy his newfound commitment to poverty, are loath to let the filmmaker out of their sight. Consequently, Sully struggles to shed his privileged lifestyle until late in the proceedings, when a knotty plot contrivance briefly places him amongst a prison chain gang.
There’s an Everyman quality to McCrea, who somewhat resembles the contemporary actor Ryan Gosling, that suits the character of Sullivan exceptionally well. Earnestness and naivete come naturally to the actor, who later in his career hit his stride in westerns. In “Sullivan’s Travels” he finds himself paired with Veronica Lake, which would challenge any actor.
Lake had a brief run of success on the big screen in the 1940’s, when she was known for her long, shimmering blond hair that hung down over one eye, a popular look that was much copied. She had a reputation for being difficult, a showbiz term generally used to refer to actors who don’t bother to learn their lines. Offered the chance to work with Lake again a few years later, McCrea turned the picture down because she was attached.
On this film, Lake neglected to mention to anyone that she was six months pregnant, which Sturges didn’t appreciate. As a struggling actress Sully meets on the road, Lake doesn’t add anything to “Sullivan’s Travels” that’s especially memorable.
Lake’s character accompanies Sullivan on his poverty tour. In another innovation rare for the period, Sturges shot these sequences with virtually no dialogue, which should have been easy for Lake.
It’s at this point when it becomes abundantly clear that “Sullivan’s Travels” is not just another Preston Sturges screwball comedy. Coming as they did after a decade of profound economic depression, it’s hard to imagine scenes of soup kitchens and flophouses being at all revelatory. But they’re essential to presenting the film’s theme.
Late in the film the chain gang in which Sullivan finds himself is invited to a black church (African Americans portrayed with respect, another Sturges innovation) to watch a Disney cartoon called “Playful Pluto.” The prisoners laugh hysterically, and Sully laughs along with them. The cartoon isn’t very funny, but that’s not the point. Later, after he returns to Hollywood, Sullivan concludes, “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.”
Is Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” autobiographical? In several interviews the director indicated it wasn’t, although the movie’s attention to detail and specific dialogue strongly suggest the spectre of a filmmaker wanting to be taken less lightly was very familiar to Sturges. Fortunately, the movie reaches the conclusion that we’re all better off when we don’t take ourselves too seriously.
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.