Sullivan’s Travels

Sullivan's TravelsHey, am I laughing?

If you were ever looking for the bridge from Charlie Chaplin to Woody Allen, it’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941) from Preston Sturges.  Sturges was a well regarded screenwriter who wanted more control over his films and so sold his script for The Great McGinty (1940) for $1 if he was allowed to direct it himself.  He would then make fourteen more films over fifteen years until he died of a heart attack in 1955.  His films are known for their clever wit and copious physical comedy.  Sullivan’s Travels is that with a little social conscience thrown in.  If the film were made today, and it probably will be, it would be an instant Best Picture.  Why?  Because the upshot is that life is pretty damn grim for most and they might as well go to the movies.  Spoiler alert.

John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a film director trying to push a new film, O Brother Where Art Thou?, a book about the reality of the poor and down-trodden.  The studios aren’t very happy about this.  Why don’t you make another comedy?  Maybe with a little sex.  But Sullivan wants to make a movie about real life.  Maybe with a little sex, but he doesn’t want to emphasize it.  But Sully doesn’t know anything about being poor, he went from school to screenwriting to incredible wealth.  That gives him an idea.  He figures he’ll go out, dressed as a bum, with only ten cents in his pocket and find out what it is to be in trouble.  After a few failed starts, he meets up with a young woman (Veronica Lake) who’s leaving Hollywood behind her.  She’s kind to Sullivan, so he tries to repay her, but that blows his cover as a bum.  So he tries again, but this time with the Girl in tow.  That doesn’t really take either, so he figures he’ll just go home, salve his conscience by throwing money at poor people and call it a day.  It’s then when he finds out what trouble really is.

Sturges is new to me, so I think of him in reference to those I already know.  If you don’t know what I already know, then you might as well start catching up.  If you know more than I know, then you can damn well keep it to yourself–unless you like sharing in which case I’d like to hear about your recommendations.  Sullivan’s Travels has the energy of Bringing Up Baby (1938) with the happy cynicism of His Girl Friday (1940) with the heart of Frank Capra (who gets a name-check in the first scene).  That is to say, it’s screwball comedy with some big physical pieces but a hard nose for the truth.  While I can’t claim a love for the physical gags, the dialogue is top notch.  Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake are very pleasant discoveries for me.  Lake is a name I knew, but I assumed she was an empty bombshell with an iconic hairdo.  But like many bombshells of the era, there’s so much more humanity there than the posters suggest.

For a movie from 1942, when you might expect things questioning the greatness of America to be anathema, the final third of this film takes a surprisingly hard look at greed and rough American justice.  Sullivan parachutes out of desperate circumstances every time things get a bit too hard for him, but he tries to remember those who can’t.  Ultimately, I think, he fails and is left with the final rationalization that will allow him to go on.  At least he’s doing something.  Isn’t he?

Mentioned in this review…

 

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About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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One Response to Sullivan’s Travels

  1. Pingback: The Great McGinty | Prof. Ratigan Reviews

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