Filmsite Movie Review
Sullivan's Travels (1941)
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Background

Sullivan's Travels (1941) is generally considered one of celebrated writer/director Preston Sturges' greatest dramatic comedies - and a satirical statement of his own director's creed. One of his more interesting and intelligent films from a repertoire of about twelve films in his entire career, Sturges' Sullivan's Travels satirizes Hollywood pretension and excesses with his particular brand of sophisticated verbal wit and dialogue, satire and fast-paced slapstick. Sturges was one of the first scriptwriters in the sound era to direct his own screenplays. He was assisted by future westerns film director Anthony Mann, and cinematographer John Seitz (who later filmed such notable film noirs as This Gun For Hire (1942), Double Indemnity (1944), The Big Clock (1948), and Sunset Boulevard (1950), as well as two other Sturges works, Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)).

This witty journey film from Paramount Studios skillfully mixes every conceivable cinematic genre type and tone of film possible - tragic melodrama, farce, prison film, serious drama, social documentary, slapstick, romance, comedy, action, and even musical, in about a dozen sequences. Due to confusion over the varying, inconsistent moods within the film, the marketing campaign decided to focus on Veronica Lake's peekaboo hairdo instead, with the tagline: "VERONICA LAKE's ON THE TAKE." Visual gags in the comic scenes include a prolonged cross-country car chase, a pratfall into a mansion's swimming pool, changing facial expressions in a portrait, and tramps scampering onto boxcars, among others. The film's title is a vague reference to Gulliver's Travels (Jonathan Swift's satirical 1726 tale of Lemuel Gulliver's fanciful journey into strange, unknown worlds of Lilliputians, Brobdingnags, Houyhnhnms, and Laputians). In addition, the main character John L. (Lloyd) Sullivan was also the name of a well-known cultural figure of the time, deceased sports hero-boxer John L. (Lawrence) Sullivan, the first heavyweight champion of gloved-boxing in the late 19th century.

The film tells of the 'mission' of 'Sully' (Joel McCrea), a big-shot Hollywood director of lightweight comedies to experience suffering in the world before producing his next socially-conscious film of hard times - an epic titled 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' about the common man. [Film-makers Joel and Ethan Coen paid homage to Sturges and his admirable film by naming their own 21st century film O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000)?] After some failed attempts dressed as a hobo and companionship on the road with an aspiring blonde actress simply called The Girl (Veronica Lake in her second picture following her work in I Wanted Wings (1941)) and wearing boy's clothes, he succeeds in losing his freedom, identity and name, health, pride and money. Incarcerated in a prison work camp as the end result of his misadventures, and as part of an audience of chain-gang convicts watching a screening in a Southern black church of a Walt Disney cartoon (starring Mickey Mouse and Pluto), he retains one final ability - - to laugh. He succeeds in understanding that his attitude toward the poor had bordered on patronization. He finally realizes the uplifting power of laughter, and decides to return to his true calling - the making of entertaining comedies to entertain rather than to edify.

Having chosen a misguided film director as the main character of his own film, many critics have generally assumed that the film has a personal, introspective, autobiographical slant, with Sturges arguing for and affirming the production of light comedies (to lift viewers' spirits) while providing commentary upon serious 'message' films. However, the superb film lacked even a single Academy Award Oscar nomination.

The Story

The film's titles appear after a paper-wrapped book (with a Paramount Picture seal) is opened by well-manicured ladies' hands. A book cover portrays the main character [Sullivan] and his female companion [The Girl] dressed as tramp-costumed hoboes. They appear - like Gulliver himself - poised above what look like little people - symbolic Lilliputians. The credits are displayed as the viewer is led further inside the book that is prefaced with a dedication:

To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated.

In the opening sequence, the conclusion of a dramatic film (a "film within a film") is being watched in a Hollywood studio office. [Is the ambiguous film a rough-draft, or a competing picture, or something else?] It ends with a moving freight train roaring through the night. On the roof of one of the boxcars, two men, a young vagrant/hobo and a railroad yard boss, are engaged in a brutal struggle for their lives. The yard boss pulls out a revolver and with a series of gunshots, fires at his adversary. The victim locks his adversary in a stranglehold. When the train reaches a bridge, both tumble sideways from the top of the car into the water below. The train whistles loudly as they fall. [Capital and Labor symbolically drown together in the moral lesson of the film.] Through the gurgling water, "THE END" slowly dissolves into view with a swelling musical finale.

In a dark, projection screening room, successful comedy film director John 'Sully' Sullivan (Joel McCrea) rises to his feet. Speaking to studio chiefs Mr. Lebrand (Robert Warwick) and Mr. Hadrian (Porter Hall), Sullivan is filled with enthusiastic, but naive praise for the 'socially-significant' aspects of a recently-successful film (not his own) that he uses as an argument for making his own first socially-aware film. One of the studio chiefs is disinterested in films that teach a moral lesson. The opening, five and a half minute scene in the studio chief's private office is a classic Sturges mixture of rapid-fire, crisp, driving dialogue and satirical drama. Tired of doing comedies, Sullivan wishes his next film would be more relevant and meaningful - "a true canvas of the suffering of humanity":

Sullivan: This picture is an ANSWER to Communists. It shows we're awake and not dunking our heads in the sand like a bunch of ostriches. I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions, stark realism, the problems that confront the average man.
Lebrand: But with a little sex.
Sullivan: A little, but I don't want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity - a true canvas of the suffering of humanity.
Lebrand: But with a little sex.
Sullivan: With a little sex in it.
Hadrian: How about a nice musical?
Sullivan: How can you talk about musicals at a time like this? With the world committing suicide, with corpses piling up in the street, with grim death gargling at you from every corner, with people slaughtered like sheep!
Hadrian: Maybe they'd like to forget that.
Sullivan: Then why do they hold this one over for a fifth week at the Music Hall? For the ushers?
Hadrian: It died in Pittsburgh.
Lebrand: Like a dog.
Sullivan: What do they know in Pittsburgh?
Lebrand: They know what they like.
Sullivan: If they knew what they liked, they wouldn't live in Pittsburgh. That's no argument.

The well-established, top-money director known for comedies wants to make a serious, solemn film ("a million dollar production") for his next effort, but it is almost sacrilegious for him to suggest to a Hollywood production boss a realistic film "as the sociological and artistic medium that it is" depicting the drama of suffering, hardship, and poverty. Previously, he had enjoyed success for light comedies, such as So Long Sarong, Hey Hey in the Hayloft, and Ants in Your Plants of 1939. Lebrand reminds Sullivan that his previous films weren't meaningful message pictures:

...they weren't about tramps, and lockouts, and sweatshops, and people eating garbage in alleys and living in piano boxes and ashcans and...They were about nice clean young people who fell in love, with laughter and music and legs - you take that scene in "Hey Hey in the Hayloft"...

The director argues that conditions have changed in their "troublous times." To discourage him, Hadrian pointedly asks Sullivan about his own real-life experiences with trouble - knowing full-well that the director had an educated upbringing and privileged life rather than a life of want and hard luck. Lebrand feels that Sullivan's protected, sheltered background is precisely why his successful, non-message pictures "have been so light, so cheerful, so inspiring." Ruefully, Sullivan admits his first-hand ignorance about trouble, poverty, and misery, and the studio representatives believe they have persuaded him to reconsider and not film his next project: O Brother, Where Art Thou? - a message film that would surely fail at the box office. But they have misread Sullivan's impulsive nature and his desire to sample life's troubles. After exhibiting a pensive, trancelike disposition, he snaps out of it: "I'm going down to the wardrobe and get some old clothes, some old shoes and I'm gonna start out with ten cents in my pocket. I don't know where I'm going, but I'm not coming back till I know what trouble is."

To live the life of a bum and discover more about "real" American life first-hand, he bids the studio executives goodbye for "maybe a week, maybe a month, maybe a year." Unworried, he leaves to prepare for his 'travels.' After Sullivan departs, Hadrian suggests that they protect their valuable investment. Through the intercom, Lebrand orders a copy (to read) of the script/book for Sullivan's new film.

Sullivan plans to go ahead with his experiential journey to find out what it's like to be poor and needy before filming a picture about it. In his own mirrored bedroom with his valet (Eric Blore), Sullivan is assisted in dressing and modeling different tramp outfits from the wardrobe department. The valet has an opinion of his hobo walk: "Isn't that overdoing it a bit, Sir? Why break their hearts?" Burrows (Robert Grieg), Sullivan's butler coldly disapproves of Sullivan's 'caricaturized' disguise as a down-and-out hobo wearing shabby clothes, because the poor insist upon their privacy and don't want any intruders. He also tells Sullivan some of the less-than-romantic symptoms of poverty - a futile speech to dissuade his employer from journeying out since poverty is "to be shunned":

Butler: The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.
Sullivan: But I'm doing it for the poor. Don't you understand?
Butler: I doubt if they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy. I believe quite properly, sir. Also, such excursions can be extremely dangerous, sir. I worked for a gentleman once, who likewise, with two friends, accoutred themselves, as you have, sir, and then went out for a lark. They have not been heard from since...You see, sir, rich people and theorists, who are usually rich people, think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches, as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn't, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned.
Sullivan: Well, you seem to have made quite a study of it.
Butler: Quite unwillingly, sir. Will that be all, sir?

Even the valet has misgivings about Sullivan's ability to confront 'trouble' with only ten cents in his pocket, so he has taken the precaution of having a studio identification card sewed into the sole of each of his boots. The studio chiefs know that Sullivan's mind "is made up" and rather than argue with him, they encourage and humor the eccentric director's wishes. The studio execs decide to make his nomadic travels a publicity stunt and provide him with "an advance man in front, a follow-upper behind." Public relations specialists Mr. Casalais (Franklin Pangborn) and Mr. Jones (William Demarest) describe their elaborate preparations for an expeditionary "land-yacht" that follows behind with all the modern, luxurious conveniences (food, liquor, a hot shower, and support personnel). Sullivan vehemently objects to the publicity entourage and the luxury van: "Look! I'm trying to find trouble. I won't find it with six acts of vaudeville on my tail, at least not the kind I'm looking for." With the threat of a court-ordered summons to restrain him, Sullivan is forced to back away and accept the accompaniment of their retinue of followers.

In the next scene, Sullivan walks along a country highway in his tramp outfit, carrying a little bandanna-bundle tied on a stick over his shoulder. Following close behind him as he hitchhikes on the road is the back-up bus filled with anxious staff and movie studio personnel. Sensational publicity copy is dictated to the press: "Thus begins this remarkable expedition into the valley of the shadow of adversity...prey to passing prowlers, poverty and policemen...with only ten cents in his pocket...John Lloyd Sullivan, the Calef of Comedy departed Hollywood at four o'clock this morning."

In a classic farcical, slapstick, briskly sped-up, cross-country chase scene, after he is picked up by a thirteen-year-old hot-rodder (Robert Winkler) who is wearing a crash helmet and is "studyin' to be a whippet tanker" - in a low-riding, home-built, souped-up Ford roadster (labeled U.S.A. TANK CORPSE, NO. 999999), Sullivan is pursued at breakneck speed by the studio's bus. In the comical spoof, all the occupants of the bus who were sent to observe and protect him - the doctor, a chauffeur, the 'colored' cook (a stereotyped role played by Charles R. Moore), a young radio operator with earphones, a secretary, a cameraman, and other studio personnel - 'eight stooges' - are wildly thrown about in the race. To the well-timed sounds of The William Tell Overture in the Keystone Cops type scene, the bus careens around corners. Dishes, tables, food, and people are bounced and chaotically tossed and sprawled around - the black cook tumbles about and ends up with his face in a bowl of white pancake batter - an unforgettable reverse-image of a black in whiteface! A motorcycle cop on the side of the road is splashed with water by the roadster. He throws his newspaper to the ground and climbs on his bike to chase after them. In the next instant, the bus roars by - predictably, he is covered with mud.

At the end of the chase after running into a hay wagon - and after the "dirty trick" he played on them, Sullivan hasn't really lost the trail of the land-yacht, so he bargains in a "fair" and "square proposition" for more space to go on alone until they meet again in Las Vegas in a few weeks.

First Voyage or 'Movie' of Sullivan's Travels:

After getting them to agree to a compromise, Sullivan begins walking down a country road and soon gets a sweaty job (in exchange for food and lodging) at an isolated farmhouse. In a beefcake pose, bare-chested Sullivan swings his axe in the middle of a backyard pile of wood for two elderly and lonely sisters. From a second story window, the sexually-starved, lecherous country widow Miz Zeffie (Esther Howard) peers at him and coquettishly calls down from around lace curtains: "Yoo-hoo." In their second floor bedroom, her thin, dour sister Ursula (Almira Sessions) cleans the room as they discuss their lascivious interest in their new yard worker: "Oh, I do hope he likes it here. It's so hard to keep a man." Miz Zeffie looks at a picture of her deceased husband Joseph, with a piece of black crepe draped across the top of the frame, and decides to lend the poor man clothes.

Squeezed (imprisoned) between the two sisters in the somber picture show audience in the next scene, a scene that satirizes how films can bore theatre audiences, Sullivan wears Joseph's striped suit. Other common folk seated around them in the theatre make distracting noises or chew loudly - there are the sounds of crying children, the crinkling of paper wrappers, the blowing of a whistle, and the loud sounds of indigestion of a man munching on popcorn. The overly-amorous farmer's widow Miz Zeffie extends her gloved hand over Sullivan's - he retracts his hand and folds his arms across his chest. The rural theatre's marquee displays the titles of the uninteresting triple feature of somber and pretentious films [compare these titles to the three titles of Sullivan's films]:

3 Features Tonight
Beyond These Tears
The Valley of the Shadow
The Buzzard of Berlin
also
SWINGO


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