Director: Preston Sturges
Cast: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, William Demarest, and Robert Warwick
Rated: Not Rated
Runtime: 90 min.
by Brian Eggert
Original Release Date:
Amid physical gags, Hollywood satire, and bustlingly funny dialogue, the 1941 screwball comedy Sullivan’s Travels substantiates the work of its writer-director, Preston Sturges, by declaring diversionary laughs as the vanguard of important cinema. Sturges configures film commentary (as opposed to social commentary) into his picture, reminding fellow filmmakers that cinema’s greatest gift is sometimes, simply, escape from the horrors of everyday life.
What Sturges offers, ironically, is a message film telling us the world no longer needs message films; and yet, the commercial and financial success of Sullivan’s Travels proves the potential of relevant commentary imbedded into entertainment. Sturges would later admit his folly, writing in autobiography, “It made some horrible crimes against juxtaposition, as a result of which I took a few on the chin.” He continued, “One local reviewer wanted to know what the hell the tragic passages were doing in this comedy, and another wanted to know what the comic passages were doing in this drama.” But this was Sturges’ genius: to combine uncultured humor with high-brow ideologies, forever meshing the erudite and common into a unique, welcome, hilarious mix.
However overrated Sturges believed message films to be, Charles Chaplin already proved allegorical satire years before. With The Tramp, a character whose dismal station signified his appeal to the hoi polloi that filled movie theaters, Chaplin made comedy into charming, often germane art. Look at Modern Times, Chaplin’s most cleverly disguised political film: it does not feel like cinematic soap-boxing as much as engaging comedy. Chaplin attacks industrialization with social libertarianism, resolving that the wheels of industry in which The Tramp is literally caught, bring about unemployment, drugs, strikes, and a severe loss of human individuality. But then, this is one of the funniest movies ever made, its commentary conveyed via Chaplin’s most recognizable visual gags, including The Tramp’s accidental forerunning of a Communist march and his desperate attempts at keeping pace with a never-ending conveyor of loose screws. While Chaplin made several examples of comedic message pictures (others include The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux, and A King in New York), like Sturges, his output more often exists as pure comedy.
Save the one exception of Sullivan’s Travels, Sturges’ pictures avoid political or social relevance, but rather carry a theme or thesis in their comedy. His 1942 picture The Palm Beach Story, for example, proposes that beautiful women will always get a free ride. Both Chaplin and Sturges would later be followed by Jacques Tati, the 1950s-60s French minimalist who likewise blended comedy with the occasional message film; his themes ranged from the downfalls of technology to the inconvenience of automobiles. This trio of filmmakers would forever elevate comedy into the realm of high art.
In Sullivan’s Travels, fictional motion picture director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) has a dream to make important movies defining the nation’s then-current financial and political sorrow. Two studio executives (Robert Warwick and Porter Hall) watch the finale of Sullivan’s latest picture; Sturges’ movie-within-a-movie effect depicts two men engaged in battle atop a moving train, until their struggle sends them falling into a river to their deaths. Sturges' film begins at The End of another. Sullivan proclaims, “You see the symbolism of it! Capital and labor destroy each other! It teaches a lesson, a moral lesson, that has social significance.” The execs just want “A little sex in it,” which of course Sullivan concedes to.
With WWII burgeoning and economic recession placing most of the country into the lower depths, Sullivan reserves his next movie for the poor masses, calling it O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Joel and Ethan Coen borrowed the faux title for their 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which also focused on ragtag folk: escaped members of a chain gain. The writing-directing-producing siblings habitually, and effectively, borrow from Sturges.). An adaptation of a fictional novel by fictional author “Sinclair Beckstein” (likely an amalgamation of Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck), Sullivan’s film is an ode to the hardships of Middle America. But what does a Hollywood director, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, know about hardship? Nothing, he resolves. And so, Sullivan heads into the wild disguised as a hobo, hoping to experience enough misery to authenticate his proposed American Tragedy.
Trying desperately to assimilate into the great unwashed, Sullivan distances himself from studio overseers and his own entourage, only to inadvertently hitch his way back to (wouldn’t you know it) Hollywood. Disenchanted by his failed absorption into disenchantment, Sullivan resigns to breakfast. In a small diner, a kind young woman, credited only as The Girl (Veronica Lake), a would-be actress giving up her trade and heading home, buys the seemingly desperate bum a plate of ham and eggs. Sullivan rewards her kindness, revealing his high-profile identity and the reasons behind his incognito expedition. Smitten, the two set out together, into America’s heartland, for a taste of poverty.
Seven-minutes of unvoiced mosaic follow Sullivan and his blonde bombshell companion (disguised as a boy) touring the lower depths. We hear nothing but heartening music playing over their journey of eating in missions and sleeping on floors. The change in Sturges’ tone is sudden, but poignant, in that the stark absence of his staccato dialogue leaves the viewer an empty sponge, soaking up the sobering imagery. Their self-inflicted squalor continues until she gives him a pained look, whiffing the entrails of a trash can. Back to Hollywood, his lesson learned, Sullivan renders his research for O Brother, Where Art Thou? complete.
Carrying a stack of five-dollar bills, Sullivan gets into his tramp garb one last night, distributing what he can to needy unfortunates. Followed by a sneaky vagrant, Sullivan receives a knock about the head, is robbed of his loot, and finds himself on a train to who-knows-where. While the thief certainly receives his comeuppance, our hero awakes in a train yard, disoriented with temporary amnesia, soon finding himself shackled into a chain gang. But when he recalls his identity and tries to inform the prison guards it was all a mistake, they simply ignore his pleas. Now Sullivan learns true suffering in the confines of prison. One night, his prison crew attends a picture show at a local church; Mickey Mouse and Pluto run rampant on the screen, allowing Sullivan to see how significant a good laugh is for prisoners and churchgoers, the commoners he so sought to understand—a group to which he now belongs. Quick thinking places Sullivan back in Hollywood, again, where he resolves O Brother, Where Art Thou? can never be. He sees now that comedies bring more hope and joy to the world than any message picture could ever instruct.
We might think that John L. Sullivan represents an autobiographical version of Preston Sturges, except Sturges never made message pictures, save for Sullivan’s Travels. And even the message behind this picture was not stark social commentary, but rather a directive to other filmmakers whose hoity-toity idealisms were shoved down the throats of all too many viewers. The film is structured from Sturges’ own half-aristocrat, half-peasant persona, thematically signifying the writer-director’s penchant for the intellectually low-brow. Sturges even pokes fun at Sullivan’s filmography; rubbish fluff titles like Ants in Your Plants of 1939 and Hey, Hey in the Hay Loft distance Sullivan’s transparent motives, lengthening the gap between Sturges and his fictional director. Sturges presents his thoughtful message by way of an audience-friendly comedy, whereas Sullivan seems to be just now learning what his audience wants.
Sturges’ upbringing reflected his work: at once worldly and earthy (in their antithetical meanings). He grew up under the wing of his bohemian-cosmopolitan mother, Mary Estelle Dempsey, who took her child to Paris at the age of three. Uninterested in exploring the world, he had culture thrust upon him. As he grew, he despised yet could not escape his mother’s influence. He would travel between Europe and the United States; in New York City at the Desti Emporium, the store owned by his mother’s fourth husband, Sturges invented a type of no-stick lip rouge in their lab. He was always tinkering with some new gizmo but would quickly develop indifference toward whatever that project may be. His attention would waver, genius notwithstanding, even when writing—the talent upon which he would ultimately settle. With his nose constantly in his favorite book, How Never to Be Tired: Two Lifetimes in One, he would rarely sleep, and always shift modes, activating on one thing and then the next in an ever-going surge of productivity.
Sturges began producing his own stage plays for Broadway in 1929. After his hit The Guinea Pig, he struck gold with Strictly Dishonorable, a piece written in six days that would earn him $300,000. A few more years on Broadway and Hollywood came calling. His first screenplay was for Fox, called The Power and the Glory, the vehicle that drove Spencer Tracey to stardom. Sturges was paid $17,500, plus a chunk of the film’s profits; due to its success, the deal became a hefty sum. The rewarding arrangement was then unheard of, giving Sturges the kind of payday and attention reserved for directors and their stars. Somewhat ostracized by his fellow writers, who often worked in packs and were paid with scraps, Sturges pioneered Hollywood like no other writer had at the time. After cranking out a series of screenplays for popular films—including Diamond Jim, Easy Living, and Remember the Night—he became frustrated with his position as merely a writer. Few directors seemed to understand the flow of his dialogue.
Yearning for total control, he made a deal with Bill LeBaron at Paramount in 1940. Sturges’ script for The Great McGinty, which he had completed six years prior, was sold for $1 with the understanding that Sturges would be allowed to direct, thus having creative rein over the story and dialogue of his picture. For a writer to bring his or her own vision to the screen was unprecedented then. Today the concept of one writer-director presiding over a movie is common, but only so because Preston Sturges proved it possible. His first picture was a grand success, eventually earning Sturges the Academy Award for Best Writing of an Original Screenplay, the writer-director trend would be followed by John Huston, Orson Welles, and Billy Wilder. Sturges’ Christmas in July followed, also released in 1940, again reinforcing his name as an efficient and successful writer-director.
When he set out to write Sullivan’s Travels, Sturges was still filming his third and most popular directorial effort, The Lady Eve, but he already had both his male and female leads for his next picture in mind. Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake would star, though studio heads were against both choices. McCrea was a blank template with genial charm that could be placed into any role. Though he was best known for Westerns, directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Sturges would recurrently exploit his everyman uniformity. Lake was six-months pregnant when shooting began—something she avoided telling Sturges until cameras were rolling. Legendary costume designer Edith Head did her best to cover up Lake’s budding tummy, but the pregnancy is visible at times. Along with the director’s own troupe of onscreen regulars—including William Demarest, Jimmy Conlin, Byron Foulger, Robert Grieg, Charles R. Moore, Franklin Pangborn, and Robert Warwick—McCrea and Lake offer two of the most amiable performances found in a Sturges picture.
Sturges wrote an in-film reference to his inspiration, director Ernst Lubitsch. “Did you ever meet Lubitsch?” The Girl asks. “Yes,” Sullivan replies. “He spoke to me the day before yesterday.” Indeed, Lubitsch spoke to Sturges on a regular basis, which is evident when comparing their shared modus operandi. Hollywood’s most exalted director of romantic comedies, Lubitsch worked primarily from the Silent Era and on into the 1940s, becoming an idol to filmmakers like Sturges and Billy Wilder. Lubitsch left Germany for Hollywood in the ‘20s, single-handedly designing the American musical with his onscreen counterpart and ever-lovable charmer, actor Maurice Chevalier. Often considered the progenitor of romantic comedies, Lubitsch’s elegant films bear the delightful sophistication Sturges borrows from, if not surpasses with his crackerjack dialogue.
Both filmmakers reveled in challenging their contemporary Production Code restrictions, be it thematically, through clever wordsmithing or subtle imagery shrewdly maneuvered to outwit the review board’s moral policing. Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise was banned in 1936 for its suggestive themes: sympathy for the film’s two thief-lovers, adultery, criminality, and palpable sexuality are all apologized for within the delightfully romantic picture. Sturges likewise battled censors on his film The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek in 1944, wherein Betty Hutton finds herself married and knocked up after a night of boozing. If only she could remember who she was married to.
Sturges, and Lubitsch before him, played with suggestions of sex, politics, and ideas generally believed to be unfunny—certainly not representational norms in the directors’ contemporary cinema. Forging such topics into wholly popularized subject matter through humor, they made way for their successors to further push boundaries. Theirs was a cinema wherein graceful metaphor combined with urbane salaciousness, together creating elegant masterworks of comic wisdom. Sullivan’s Travels remains an unconventional comedy, a blend of slapstick and drama, and one of the few effective comedic message films. Sturges set out to make entertainment, and while he did just that, he also made O Brother, Where Art Thou? for Hollywood. His audience never feels outwitted; he writes in universal themes with a familiar, hair-trigger tongue, generating an onslaught of guiltless laughs. Behind it, his genius subsists. Sullivan masquerading in his Tramp garb could be an emblematic Sturges: a brilliant creative intelligence in the disguise of The Common Man.
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