In 1941, the same extraordinary vintage year that saw the release of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York and Ball of Fire, John Huston’s first film, The Maltese Falcon, Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra and The Strawberry Blonde, among other memorable films, came the third and fourth brilliant comedies in a row from America’s first writer-director of the sound era, the incomparable Preston Sturges. Early that year, there was Sturges’ scintillating romantic farce with Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck, The Lady Eve; and right at the end, an utterly unique achievement—light, even slapstick, comedy that veers into heavy drama—about a pampered hit-making Hollywood movie director who decides to find out what life is really like out there and does, with a fateful vengeance in Sullivan’s Travels (available on DVD).
Superbly stoic and deadpan Joel McCrea plays Sullivan — a mega-box office winner with forgettable items like Ants in Your Pants and Hey Hey in the Hayloft — who gets his studio to buy for him a deadly serious heavily social-conscious novel titled O Brother, Where Art Thou (not to be confused with the Coen Bros. picture, an inside tip of the hat to Sturges) so that he can adapt it into a picture of substance, weight and stature. “But with a little sex in it,” hopes his dubious studio head. Before Sullivan can embark on such a meaningful project, however, he feels that first he must rough it, go down to Skid Row with no money in his pockets, see how the less fortunate live, where the homeless hang out.
For a while Sully (as his associates call him) is joined on his misbegotten adventure by an aspiring young actress he’s run into, played with a sexy, savvy kind of candor by Veronica Lake in her very best film role. Unfortunately for Sully, life intrudes in a deeply ugly way and pretty soon he finds himself whacked on the head (causing amnesia for some time) and eventually part of a terrible Southern chain gang with a mercilessly brutal warden. In this miserable circumstance, he comes to learn his biggest lesson about life: that being able to make people laugh is a great and precious gift which should be treasured because, “Laughter,” as Sully says at the end, “may not be much, but it’s all some people have in this cockeyed caravan. Boy!”
The film’s satirical thrusts at Hollywood celebrity, unreality and pretentiousness are still timely as ever, the pace is breakneck and all the performances absolutely topnotch. How could any movie in which the two leads sit at a soda fountain and discuss Ernst Lubitsch be anything but sublime? Sullivan’s Travels was Sturges’ way of saying to the comedy makers that theirs was the most important work, a sardonic nudge to Frank Capra and the Academy to state that for a troubled public, social-minded seriousness can never match solid healthy laughter.