Sullivan’s Travels

Sullivan's Travels (1941) movie poster

(1941) dir. Preston Sturges
viewed: 11/28/08

Well, I’ve broken through on another important director whose films I had up til now never seen.  Preston Sturges is a much loved and hailed writer/director of Hollywood comedies, and it’s crazy that I’ve just now finally seen one.

Sullivan’s Travels is an excellent film, at times somewhat of the class of the rapid-fire dialogue that the Screwball Comedy came known for, but at others a far more physical style of Slapstick, too.  And beyond that, it’s also a film of social criticism, in some ways dramatic and significant like a Frank Capra film.  So, it’s a lot of things in one.  And all of it good.

Starring Joel McCrea and Veronica (What a babe!) Lake, it’s solidly helmed on every front, with top-notch talent and game cast.  McCrea plays the titular Sullivan, a successful Hollywood director of broad comedies who yearns to make a serious film about the downtrodden.  When his studio and his valets suggest that he doesn’t really know what it means to be poor and down-and-out, he decides to hit the road, disguised as a hobo.

His first few efforts are stalled out, bringing him back to Hollywood without any genuine experience, though he does manage to stumble on the gorgeous Lake in a coffee shop, who offers to buy him breakfast, even though she is a failed actress, about to return back East.  They end up striking out together and they eventually get enough of the experience to satisfy Sullivan’s exploration and return to Hollywood.  But, when Sullivan goes out with $1000 in $5 bills, handing them out to the poor and homeless, in an anonymous attempt to repay his education, he’s knocked unconscious and stuck on a train down South, where he winds up arrested and jailed in a tough labor camp.

Well, there is a lot more to the story, but the laughable and ignorant attempt to understand the “real” social issues actually allows Sturges to demonstrate the plights of the poor himself, somewhat reflexively to his character Sullivan.  The whole film has much reflexivity in it, as it begins with an action sequence atop a speeding locomotive that ends with “The End”.  Is this the end of the movie?  No, it’s just a preview screening of Sullivan’s latest film in a screening room with the producers and studio executives.

There is much name-dropping and joking about stars and directors and studios in the rapid-fire dialogue that opens the film.  It makes you wonder if Sturges really went through such a conflict, since he himself was known for comedies, and utilized this narrative and title character to play out a fantasy (and reality) of his to make a film that had a serious social aspect, portraying the plight of the poor.  It also includes a very atypically positive portrayal of African Americans in a scene in a church, though earlier on there is a cook character who seems more typical of the Stepin Fetchit category.

All in all, an excellent movie that succeeds at its many aspects of verbal and physical comedy, as well as a heartfelt drama.

Additionally, the movie that Sullivan wants to make is “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, which was cheekishly usurped by the Coen brothers into one of their most entertaining films.  A nice touch.

2 Replies to “Sullivan’s Travels”

  1. We loved this movie. Laughed out loud at the Land Yacht scenes. Lake and McCrea were a treat to watch. Even the support cast was excellent.
    The story line was also thoughtful. Bouncing back and forth from comedy and drama was just sweetly executed.

  2. A favorite of mine since I was a kid. There are many wee ignorant things used so the man of the time will “get it” but I saw so much in it as a kid.
    One of my favorites (Ken you may have noticed). Thanks for noticing this often over looked Sturgess, McCrea and short screen life of Lake.

    The next film I’d love you to share with the legions is the Woody Guthrie bio film Bound For Glory (1976) with David Carradine as Woodie – by the great guy who also did The Runaway (1963) with Cesar Romero playing a priests who helps an orphan & his pup find their way (don’t need to be religious to appreciate this – Mexico border issues are poignant). which was an indie film just aired for the first time on Turner Classic Movies cable channel.

    I do hope TCM keeps going without commercials with original editing and preserving and airing more indie and off the wall films!

    You go Ken!

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