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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Preston Sturges’ ‘Sullivan’s Travels’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Preston Sturges' 'Sullivan's Travels'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is the Criticwire Classic of the Week.

“Sullivan’s Travels”
Dir: Preston Sturges
Criticwire Average: A

A satire that chastises Hollywood for its blinkered moralizing yet espouses on the value of escapism, Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” may seem like a film rife with contradictions, but not only is it cohesive, it never once feels muddled or, worse, didactic. Instead, Sturges projects a wide-eyed clarity in the writing and filmmaking of “Sullivan’s Travels”; he keenly understood that a film that preaches leaves a sour taste in the viewer’s mouth, but a film that advocates through story, performances, and tone can move an audience to tears. As a result, “Sullivan’s Travels” brims with sweetness and charm. It depicts humanity at its most vital and contains a deep well of empathy for all of its burdened subjects, from legions of homeless people to labor camp workers, and even its naive, privileged protagonist John L. Sullivan (played wonderfully by Joel McCrea), a rich film director known for his crowd-pleasing comedies who wants to make Serious Films that capture true pain and suffering.

“Sullivan’s Travels” begins with Sullivan begging his studio bosses to make a movie that’s “a true canvas of the suffering of humanity,” when all they want is for him to make another “Ants in Your Plants” movie. Sullivan wants to adapt “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a socially-conscious novel that comments on the horrors of modern life, but as his bosses point out, Sullivan has lived a privileged Hollywood lifestyle and knows nothing of these horrors. So, he decides to experience the plight of humanity first-hand by dressing, traveling, and living as a homeless tramp. Though initially followed by a fully staffed double-decker coach bus containing all the amenities of Hollywood life, including a cook and a medic, Sullivan convinces them to leave him alone so he can truly experience life on the road, but when he tries to hitchhike by himself, he ends up back in Los Angeles. It’s only when he meets a young failed actress on her way out of Hollywood (Veronica Lake, in one of her all-time best roles) that Sullivan decides to give it another shot with her by his side. However, it’s only when the experiment goes completely awry and lands Sullivan in a labor camp by mistake that he finally experiences pain and suffering, and what he can do to help cure it.

Though “Sullivan’s Travels” stands the test of time after over seventy years, it’s a film that makes most sense in light of the Great Depression. When “Sullivan’s Travels” was filmed in 1941, America was just getting back on its feet after a decade of economic stagnation, with military spending and New Deal policies only starting to alleviate unemployment and stimulate overall spending. But it was during this time that most Americans witnessed honest-to-God poverty for the first time as the depression impacted everyone from those in cities to rural communities. Citizens who lived comfortable in the 1920s were now scrounging for work and standing in bread lines. It was a dark time for the country, and it was soon going to become even worse once American entered World War II. Naturally, Hollywood responded to the culture with films that preached suffering and indignity but didn’t do much to soothe or reduce the pain of the average citizens. Sturges wrote and directed “Sullivan’s Travels” as a response to those “message movies” by showcasing how foolish it was for anyone in Hollywood to claim they understood the suffering of the common man, as well as to depict it on screen and pander to the liberal sensibilities of the upper class. In Sturges’ estimation, the best anyone working in Hollywood can do is make films that lighten the burden of everyday life just a little bit. It’s their job to transport an audience to a different world, to make them laugh, and most importantly, to forget their troubles.

But if Sturges was trying to make a light fantasy with “Sullivan’s Travels,” he missed the mark considerably. Though it is a comedy, and a funny one at that, the film isn’t some escapist romp or a yuck fest either. Once Sullivan and The Girl actually begin to live with the homeless, “Sullivan’s Travels” soberly showcases the life of the poor with little sentimentality. In a long, wordless montage, Sturges neither fetishizes their lifestyle nor exploits their pain; instead, he simply and clearly depicts their way of life as, well, their way of life, portraying Sullivan and The Girl as well-intentioned poseurs who are in over their heads. (One of the funniest scenes in the film is when two hobos watch Sullivan and The Girl struggle to board a moving freight train; one turns to the other and mutters, “Amateurs.”) Sturges never infuses the film with any melodrama, but rather a quiet tragedy only highlighted in a few crucial narrative turns, like when Sullivan mistakenly gets sentenced to a labor camp. He’s forced to perform hard labor on a chain gang under the cruel tyranny of a prison warden, who one day locks Sullivan in a sweat box without food or water. For a film that sneers at Hollywood’s attempts to project a social conscience, “Sullivan’s Travels'” own conscience is active and dynamic, with its sympathies on those living far outside of the Hollywood system.

It’s this willingness to rub audiences’ faces in reality that makes the famous scene when Sullivan understands the power of laughter so potent and moving. Sullivan and the rest of the chain gang are brought into a black church, who have opened their doors and hearts to those less fortunate than they are, so they can watch a movie for a little entertainment. The film in question is Disney’s “Playful Pluto” cartoon and it’s a huge success with the congregation as well as the prisoners. Sturges cuts back and forth between the cartoon and close-ups of the audience laughing uproariously, bonding two disparate groups, black church members and white prisoners, together with comedy. “Am I laughing?” Sullivan asks incredulously to his compatriot sitting next to him, astounded that he and the rest of the inmates can laugh at anything — especially a cartoon that plays up the suffering, pain, and humiliation of Pluto for laughs — when their lives are in shambles. It’s here Sturges illustrates to the audience that trite ol’ cliche is true: laughter can be a powerful antidote to tragedy.

When Sullivan returns to Hollywood, he states that not only is he too happy and hasn’t suffered enough to make “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” but that he must return to comedies because “it’s all some people have” in this cruel world. Does Sturges cave and inject a message into his satire that argues against “message movies”? Maybe, but Sturges’ real point was not quite films with message, but films that preach messages to those eminently aware of them. The people living in poverty have first-hand experience with hardship and despair and they don’t need Hollywood directors to spit it back at them. Ultimately, it’s only the people who don’t live in poverty that will get anything from the message. Instead, Sturges argues that if films want to preach anything, it should preach what they’re good at: entertainment. After all, it isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. 

More thoughts from the web:

Peter Bogdanovich, Indiewire

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. Read more.

Stuart Klawans, Criterion

“Make ’em laugh” is hardly an adequate summation for a story in which the most memorable and affecting sequence is a prayer meeting in a rural black church, led by an uncredited Jess Lee Brooks. Talk about leaving the preaching to the preachers. The lesson of Sturges’ peculiar gospel may ultimately be the communion of all humanity in the need for laughter, but by the time you reach this revelation, you have witnessed one of the most striking and conscience-laden episodes of social realism in classic American cinema. Other films of the 1930s and early ’40s are certainly more outspoken and sustained in their criticisms of the established order — “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” comes to mind as an obvious model — but only “Sullivan’s Travels” shows you the face of poverty, protests against legalized brutality, and puts to shame America’s racial division all at once, in full seriousness. And it does so as the high point of its story. That the film is determined to sell this story as comedy does not diminish the seriousness but rather makes it all the more wonderful. Read more.

Erik Adams, The A.V. Club

In addition to tweaking its hero’s artistic pretensions, “Sullivan’s Travels” shows keen insights into the absurd mechanisms of the Hollywood studio system. The director is permitted to undertake his ambitious research project, but only under the supervision of a caravan that includes a press agent, a physician, and a chef manning a fully stocked kitchen. Sullivan eventually ditches his escort, but he’s too accustomed to the cushy Tinseltown life to truly get away. It’s all part of the rich irony of Sturges’ script: Insulated from the worries of the real world, the “trouble” sought by McCrea’s character is the version he gets from the latest in socially conscious literature. The closed loop that keeps making a destination out of his departure point is a function of destiny and experience — and the outcome of a romantic subplot involving Veronica Lake as an actress having her own version of trouble in showbiz. It’s only when circumstance removes all the phony-baloney aspects of what Lake derides as the “noble experiment” that Sullivan gets to experience his reinvention. There’s that irony again; it’s also present in Sullivan’s climactic epiphany, in which McCrea’s sour-faced seriousness finally drops in favor of a grin. It’s the uplifting capper to an uproarious travelogue. Read more.

Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

Writer-director Preston Sturges’ comedy about a popular — slightly fatuous — Hollywood director (Joel McCrea), who feels that his hits, such as “Ants in Your Plants of 1939,” aren’t worthy of a war-devastated world. To research his next project, a relevant film to be called “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” he gets dressed as a tramp and goes out to investigate the lower depths. Sturges is more at home in slapstick irony (as in “The Lady Eve,” earlier in ’41) than in the mixed tones of this comedy-melodrama, but it’s a memorable film nevertheless. With Veronica Lake, underacting with perfect composure, and Margaret Hayes, and many of the actors Sturges delighted in and used repeatedly. Read more.

Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

Preston Sturges’ remarkable autobiographical fantasy (1941) about a famous comedy director (Joel McCrea) who, after years of turning out things like “Ants in Your Plants of [1939],” yearns to create a great social statement. The lesson he learns — on a research trip through America’s seamy underside — is that the downtrodden masses need Mickey Mouse more than Marx. A dubious proposition, but in Sturges’ hands a charming one, filled out by his unparalleled sense of eccentric character. Read more.

Geoff Andrews, Time Out London

Irresistible tale of a Hollywood director, tired of making comedies and bent on branching out with an arthouse epic called “Brother, Where Art Thou?,” who sets out to research the meaning of poverty. Suitably costumed as a hobo and starting down the road, discreetly dogged by a studio caravan ready to record the great man’s thoughts and serve his needs, he angrily sends this absurd prop packing; only to realize much later, while sweating out a sentence on a chain gang, that severing the lifeline has left him to all intents and purposes a stateless person. He emerges a wiser and more sober man, having seen his fellow-convicts forget their misery in watching a Disney cartoon. The film has sometimes been read as a defence of Hollywood escapism, but what Sturges is really doing is putting down the awful liberal solemnities of problem pictures and movies with a message. Whatever, “Sullivan’s Travels” is a gem, an almost serious comedy not taken entirely seriously, with wonderful dialogue, eccentric characterizations, and superlative performances throughout. Read more.

Bosley Crowther, The New York Times

Preston Sturges need make no excuses for the dominance of comedy on the screen, since he has done more than any one over the last two years to give brightness and bounce and authority to this general type of fare. But apparently he thinks it time that some one break a lance in the muse’s defense — and maybe he also is anxious to quiet a still, small voice within himself. For his latest film, “Sullivan’s Travels,” which rolled into the Paramount yesterday, is a beautifully trenchant satire upon “social significance” in pictures, a stinging slap at those fellows who howl for realism on the screen and a deftly sardonic apologia for Hollywood make-believe. Sardonic? How comes that word to creep in so slyly there? The answer is simple. Mr. Sturges is a charmingly sarcastic chap, and his pokes are not aimed exclusively at the “deep-dish” in screen attitudes. He also makes pointed sport, in his own blithely mischievous way, of Hollywood’s lavish excesses, of baldly staged publicity stunts and of motion picture producers whose notion of art is “a little sex.” As a writer and director, Mr. Sturges believes in pictures which will make the customers laugh, but he obviously has his own opinions about the shams of showmanship. And thus this truly brilliant serio-comedy which makes fun of films with “messages” carries its own paradoxical moral and its note of tragedy. Laughter, it says, is “better than nothing in this cock-eyed caravan.” Read more.

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