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Sullivan's Travels (1941)

 

Funny how nearly EVERY poster for this film has Veronica Lake - and ONLY Veronica Lake - prominently displayed...
Funny how nearly EVERY poster for this film has Veronica Lake - and ONLY Veronica Lake - prominently displayed...

Genre: Adventure Comedy Drama

Starring: Joel McCrea (The Palm Beach StoryForeign Correspondent), Veronica Lake (The Blue Dahlia (1946)This Gun for Hire)

Directed By: Preston Sturges (The Lady EveChristmas in July

Overview: John Lloyd Sullivan, a Hollywood director of light-hearted comedies, wants his next film to be an epic about despair and poverty. To help study, he and a girl he meets dress like hobos and live the skid row lifestyle for a few weeks.

This paragraph is strictly for those who’ve seen the film, who never plan on seeing the film, or who don’t mind every hook, line and twister being ruined before they see it (you people are weird)...
Click here to skip the spoiler bit.

I first decided that Sullivan's Travels was a pleasant little innocuous comedy whose only real failing was a slow start. But as I wrote my review, I could not help but be reminded of two things: firstly, our trying-to-be-lovably-sincere characters have ample opportunity to genuinely begin to understand poverty and the ills of skid row’s penniless. But these Hollywood elites are soft, fleeing cans of garbage in favour of canapés when their bellies begin to grumble. This speaks to the core of these people we’re following – method actors who stop short of their character study when it starts getting uncomfortable. It keeps them from being interesting, dedicated. They can never be truly lovable because they can’t go without their orgiastic wealth for two weeks. When choosing to gag on a silver spoon rather than following through on their promise, it brings these people to the point of petty fakery. Second is Preston Sturges’ very message, his film’s moral: “I will stick to making Comedies because laughter is all some people have.” This is where I lose most of the respect I had for this work, and perhaps for Sturges himself. Here’s a quote from this film’s entry in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book: “That Sullivan’s Travels possesses an autobiographical dimension is impossible to deny, with Sturges affirming the value of what he himself did best – making smart comedies with the power to lift viewers’ spirits – while ripping the pretentiousness of Hollywood’s more sober and ‘socially committed’ filmmakers.”

Sturges’ script is intentionally more Comedy than Drama – but it often stays in the outrageous, the slapstick/screwball that frequently refuses our characters the chance to go off on their own and learn their hard lessons – when I say frequently, I mean three out of four times, because Sturges wanted to ‘keep it light’. This translates into over half of the film feeling like an introduction, three acts of gags tacked onto a worthy short film to make it a feature. But my main issue with Sullivan’s Travels, if the 1001 quote is contextually true, is simply that Sturges is a small man indeed. To choose comedy over substance? Fine. But to bite one’s thumb at ‘socially committed filmmakers’ is a horrible thing to be proud of. Using an example off the top of my head, Mervyn LeRoy’s 1932 film I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang was a serious, heavy film, and its release across America caused such an uproar that chain gang laws in several states were changed, some even abolishing the practice because until I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang was seen, society was unaware of the cruelty done to chain gang prisoners. For a filmmaker to be partly responsible for such epic social change is noble. For another filmmaker to call that sort of filmmaking ‘pretentious’, well that’s absolutely reprehensible.

Snobs!

 
Sullivan's Travels
opens with our famous film director John Lloyd Sullivan (Joel McCrea) and his producers watching a film’s tragic and dramatic ending. Sullivan is famous for making popular fluff films, comedies like Ants in Your Pants and Hey-Hey in the Hay. But that’s not enough for Sullivan. He wants to make a socially-conscious film, one that reflects these hard times. He wants to make a film based on Sinclair Beckstein’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? (yes, the very same title as the Coen Brothers’ movie made in 2000, and they certainly were tipping their directorial hats to Sturges when they did it). It’s a novel that’s deep, that’s important, but most of all, that’s not fluff. In an effort to dissuade him, his producers accuse Sullivan of not understanding the world he wants to direct into a film. Sullivan agrees with them wholeheartedly, but instead of bowing to pressure and doing what he’s good at, he decides to go off and live the hobo lifestyle, to know what it’s like to suffer and starve. His first attempt ends with him being trailed by a “land yacht”, a busload of studio people, a doctor, a cook, a PR reporter. As Sullivan hitchhikes along the road, torn clothing and bag tied to a stick, the monstrous silver bus trails closely behind. Slapstickery ensues. Sullivan tries again, this time escaping his entourage and earning an honest day’s hard work, but ends up hitching a ride, that just so happens to take him back to Hollywood where he meets a girl (Veronica Lake) who buys him breakfast. She’s a Hollywood hopeful who’s given up hope at fame, is calling it quits and wants to head back home. Sullivan again forgets his quest and brings her back to his mansion. Eventually he sets out a third time, bringing the girl with him, dressing her up as a boy and heading out to ride the rails and attempting to have a real miserable adventure.

This is not quite the first half of what happens in Sullivan's Travels and usually I would restrain myself from going into this much detail, except that this story is 70% first-act preamble introduction and 30% substance. Nothing truly worthy of telling happens until the third act, until Sullivan’s ironic fourth trip out. To talk about that would be spoiler and I shant. What I will talk about is simple: why did it take so long to get serious? And though the easy answer is simply, “It’s a Comedy,” it’s also tragic knowing that so much of that film was wasted on buffoonery. Another displeasing aspect of the film was praised in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book:  “the tour de force script brings together a remarkable range of genres, including slapstick, action, melodrama, social documentary, romance, musical, and prison movie.” When trying to give everyone something they’ll enjoy with all these genres, much of the film is spent waffling from one angle to the next, tearing us from what we love to its opposite, being a jack of all trades yet master of none.

LeBrand: [That movie] died in Pittsburgh.
Hadrian: Like a dog!
John L. Sullivan: Aw, what do they know in Pittsburgh...
Hadrian: They know what they like.
John L. Sullivan: If they knew what they liked, they wouldn't live in Pittsburgh!

One happy constant in Sullivan's Travels is the movie’s script. It is so absolutely, amazingly strong. We open with an entire first scene filled with one quotable quote after another. From beginning to end, there’s wit alongside wisdom, silly gags and shining intellect. This is also one of the reasons I was so saddened by the omnipresent slapstick and screwball comedy. Eye-rolling gags include the portrait of a widow’s husband changing into differing looks of disapproval and surprise, cops getting covered in splashed mud as a young boy dressed as a Nazi  - thankfully cute rather than offensive - drives around on sped-up film like a moronic Benny Hill skit… these scenes made me mourn what could have been a ‘socially-conscious film.’ But through it all are sparks of greatness. Sullivan's Travelsfinal act is solid, worthy, a mighty powerful social-commentary and a morally-infuriating stab at class differences and the penal system. It’s beautiful to watch, brilliantly shot and a poignant conclusion to a film that was, all told just a little too much of a farce.

Of course, Veronica Lake IS quite thre draw...
Of course, Veronica Lake IS quite the draw...

Performance: 7 Cinematography: 8 Script: 9 Plot: 6 Mood: 6

Overall Rating: 72% (Roams A Little Too Much)
Aftertaste:

One particular scene that soured the film for me has our two characters as hobos walking around looking for food in garbage cans. They give up, turning back to the mansion rather than sticking to it and eating what they can. I was instantly reminded of lyrics from Pulp’s hit song ‘Common People’:

But still you'll never get it right,
cos when you're laid in bed at night,
watching roaches climb the wall,
if you call your Dad he could stop it all.

You'll never live like common people,
you'll never do what common people do,
you'll never fail like common people,
you'll never watch your life slide out of view,
and dance and drink and screw,
because there's nothing else to do.

Sing along with the common people,
sing along and it might just get you through,
laugh along with the common people,
laugh along even though they're laughing at you,
and the stupid things that you do.
Because you think that poor is cool.

Sullivan’s butler Burrows said it far more succinctly: “If you'll permit me to say so, sir, the subject is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.”

| | | | | |

Great piece here. When I penned my own review a few weeks ago, I thought it seemed more negative than most. Now, having stumbled across a few other pieces in the interim, with similar objections to mine, I almost feel like I pulled a few punches. This a pretty blistering attack on the notion of being "pretentious about not being pretentious" (as I like to put it). Although ultimately the film doesn't even have the courage of THAT conviction, since it does try to be sincere at times.

It's an excellent film in many regards - as you note the dialogue is hilarious (like you, in retrospect, the pratfalls I didn't find nearly as funny - and I really hate that moment where the cook gets "white-faced" by the cake). And I find Veronica Lake pretty irresistible. What's more, the storytelling - even the random, multiform, take-a-while-to-get-to-the-point aspect you seem to object to - I found enjoyably inventive.

But there just IS something smug and irritating about the movie's desire to poke fun at seriousness. And I think it has a lot to do with the contemporary zeitgeist - ten years ago (and twenty, thirty, forty, etc) anyone critiquing the film for mocking social commitment would probably have been roundly ridiculed for choosing politics over art, or for not having a sense of humor, or for "strained seriousness" (as Andrew Sarris would put it) or whatever.

That's precisely because for the bulk of Americans, even those who were struggling, the identification with poverty was nonexistent. Obviously the recession changed this, and with it the now seemingly simplistic, complacent notion that a film's social consciousness doesn't matter one whit.

Something that irritates me about contemporary Hollywood, which I noted recently when commenting on a review of a 20s film which featured a factory worker and phone operator as its romantic protagonists, is the complete out-of-touchness with average American life; protagonists are almost always professionals, as if the whole world was white-collar. When they aren't THAT becomes the hook like it's something special.

In a sense, then, Sullivan's Travels' satirical target is more apt than ever, which makes it more of a pity it didn't actually seem to know what its target was (except perhaps for the butler speech and, somewhat implicitly) the ending. Sturges doesn't seem to know if he wants to make fun of Sullivan for being incapable of making films about economic struggle, make fun of him for wanting to make such films in the first place, or actually wants to be Sullivan himself. Good thing he had Veronica Lake, the sparkling style of Golden Age Hollywood, and his own ear for dialogue and inventive way with narrative structure to cover up this confusion (somewhat)...


Thanks so much for this exceptionally insigthtful comment. Incredibly writ, sir.

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