Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
Written & Directed by Preston Sturges
Sullivan’s Travels is a masterpiece in my book. It’s a metacommentary on movies that never loses sight that it’s also a slapstick comedy. The film is a reflection of the struggles of the working class, particularly during the Great Depression, but it’s a genuinely endearing love story. Preston Sturges managed to create a film that captures so much about his point in time yet speaks universally to the struggles & victories of our lives today. Yet Sturges made a movie preaching about the annoyance of preaching in film. It’s a beautiful paradox the produced a picture that is one of the best American films ever made.
Hollywood director John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) became wealthy from making shallow comedies but now feels compelled to make a movie about the downtrodden amid the Great Depression. The studio bosses think this is a terrible idea and challenge Sullivan on his knowledge of what it’s actually like to be poor. Instead of taking the bait, Sullivan agrees but then says he will hitchhike across the country with ten cents in his pocket to see how those in poverty are living. Every time he sets off though circumstances bring him back to Los Angeles.
On one of those returns, he meets The Girl (Veronica Lake), a young failed actress turned cynical about the whole movie business. Sullivan eventually reveals that beneath his hobo clothes, he’s a famous director, and she invites herself along on his journey. The misadventures continue, and the closer Sullivan gets to the real pain and suffering, the more he realizes how unprepared he was for this experience. Sturges never loses sight of the comedy and delivers some fantastic sight gags and slapstick moments throughout.
It should be noted that Sullivan’s Travels was not a success upon its release in December 1941. Critics were divided, with some noting what a brilliant way it was to address a type of film being made at the time. Others found Sturges to be doing the very thing he was admonishing other directors for putting into their work. I think at the time, movies were considered a mass audience product at all times, and the notion of a niche picture was in its infancy. I think of filmmakers like Charlie Kaufman or The Coen Brothers who can make movies that appeal to broad audiences but often make the things they would enjoy; that play to their own eccentricities.
Veronica Lake cannot be overlooked in her role as The Girl, yet another film icon I’ve discovered was a great comedic actress this year. Earlier I saw Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder’s movies. Lake is often boiled down to the imagery of her hairstyle, but here she is sharp, her dialogue snapping at a rapid pace with reliable comedic timing. She has some great reaction moments and speaks to Sturges’s strengths of writing cooly measured women who aren’t worried about being silly.
Sturges does choose to get sober in the third act of the film, but I argue it is a vital turn in the tone of the picture. Sullivan ends up sitting in the pews of Southern black church where they are screening a Disney cartoon. Prisoners from a chain gang have been invited by the pastor to enjoy the humor and joy of watching this simple distraction. Sturges received a letter from Walter White, the secretary of the NAACP at the time. White wanted to express how moved he was by the profoundly nuanced and human portrayal black Americans were given at this moment. If you step back and look at representation in cinema at the time, black people were often mocked and presented as figures of ridicule for stereotypes of laziness or dumbness.
If you haven’t seen Sullivan’s Travels, you should do yourself that favor. It’s one of the most balanced comedies I’ve ever seen, managing to tell an essential story while never sacrificing an opportunity for a laugh. The troupe of supporting actors fills in all those great details that make a Sturges film so enjoyable. I can’t imagine anyone walking away from this movie without a smile on their face, feeling better and more hopeful.