SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS A
USA (90 mi) 1941 d: Preston Sturges
To the memory of those who made us laugh: to the motley mountebacks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated.
Preston Sturges began his career as a playwright, earning more than a quarter of a million dollars by his second Broadway play, Strictly Dishonorable, a staggering figure at the outset of the Depression in the late 1920’s, eventually becoming a movie screenwriter in the 1930’s, becoming disenchanted with the way Hollywood directors were handling his dialogue, so he traded in his salary rights for the screenplay of THE GREAT MCGINTY (1940) for the chance to direct the film, something that set a precedent for later writer/directors like Billy Wilder and John Huston, not only to direct their own material, but to assemble their own unofficial stock company. With Paramount promoting the film, it was a modest financial success, with Sturges winning an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, his first of three nominations in the category, also including two films from 1944, HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK. Though he had a thirty-year career in Hollywood, Sturges’ most prolific output came between 1940 to 1944, writing 7 comedies, four of which were chosen by the American Film Institute (AFI) among their 100 funniest American films, after which his career (still in his mid-40’s) over the next 15 years sputtered, eventually dying bankrupt and forgotten while writing his memoirs in New York’s Algonquin Hotel, a haven for literary figures, very similar, oddly enough, to the fizzled career of actress Veronica Lake in the 50’s, who was arrested later in life for public drunkenness, drifting from various cheap hotels until she eventually died of alcoholism.
Released just a few weeks after the invasion of Pearl Harbor, the timing of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS feels unfortunate, as a comic film satirizing the tastelessness and pretentious nature of the movie industry feels secondary to a nation at war, as it questions the reality as presented by Hollywood films at a time when the nation itself was immersed in a devastatingly ugly reality of its own, the American entrance into World War II. Making matters worse, the film was advertised as a Veronica Lake movie following her rapid rise to fame from I WANTED WINGS (1941), the first film to showcase the actress as a platinum blond, yet she is more of a sidekick in a film that was written for lead actor Joel McCrea as a kind of everyman. The result is a film that was unsuccessful at the box office, one of the bleakest and most disturbing comedies to ever come out of Hollywood, but whose reputation has only grown over time. The film is surprisingly complex with two distinctly different halves, with inexplicably surreal moments, evolving through a series of Odysseus-like misadventures, turning into a meandering heroic journey of self-discovery, overcoming plenty of obstacles along the way. A parody of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, but instead of moving from a cheery optimist to a human misanthrope, this film instead doubts its own relevancy at the outset and slowly discovers its reason for being along the way. Opening with a film within a film, McCrea as Sullivan is a Hollywood director who’s had a string of lightweight, comedic hits, but now wants to direct something more serious, choosing to explore the destitute world of tramps during the Depression living on the road, hopping boxcars, and living in hobo camps from the novel O Brother, Where Art Thou? (a title later claimed by the Coen Brothers in their tribute to this film in 2000). While the studio heads hate the idea, claiming it’s too depressing, Sullivan insists upon going on the road and discovering firsthand what it’s like to be poor.
The absurdity of seeing a Hollywood movie mogul, a college graduate educated in prep schools dressing as a penniless hobo and hitting the road, is patently ridiculous, especially with a motor home of his handlers following close behind. Thus the journey begins with the most exaggerated, broadly based and stereotypical characterizations, which includes the frenetic pace of screwball comedy and a chase scene right out of the Keystone Cops, where some may take offense by the derogatory racial caricature of a black chef, credited as the “colored cook,” but all the characters revert to the outlandish mannerisms of Silent era films, where Sullivan himself is a throwback to Chaplin’s Little Tramp and his association with poverty, especially when he enters the domain of the downtrodden. Soon enough, after some unpleasantries performing community service in the home of a sex-starved widow, Sullivan finds himself right back in Hollywood, now a hobo entering a cheap diner for a cup of coffee, where an attractive young actress wannabe known only as the Girl (Veronica Lake) buys him a meal. Their dialogue together is reminiscent of Lake as a femme fatale in film noir, as she’s got a tough edge to her delivery, but their chemistry together is instantly appealing, especially the way she always seems to smile at his awkwardness and utter male futility, feeling somewhat betrayed when he turns out to be one of those same successful Hollywood directors that have been turning her down for months. One of the priceless scenes is seeing Sullivan dressed as a tramp walking around his million dollar Beverly Hills mansion showing off his tennis courts and his pool. Insistent upon carrying out his harebrained scheme, she insists upon going along with him, both dressed as tramps, where she’s dressed as a young boy, where they hop traincars and interestingly sleep together in boxcars and hobo camps.
In what is easily the scene of the film, precisely the film Sullivan wanted to make, Sturges films their entry into the actual world of tramps as a wordless montage, a seven-minute sequence panning through all the various down-and-out characters of a shantytown, where by now they’re literally no different, wearing sandwich board signs for cash or passing out leaflets, forced to endure the endless church sermons for a free meal and having to sleep cramped on the floor in hobo shelters, where his shoes are stolen while he slept. In a romantically tender scene that defies belief, the two are alone strolling along a moonlit lake, seemingly in perfect harmony with nature and each other, yet they walk right past a man literally hanging from a tree, where his feet can be seen dangling from the branches, but neither one looks or comments upon it, and there is no reference to it whatsoever in the film. The reference to evil is like something out of The Night of the Hunter (1955), only seen from an adult’s perspective. It’s here that a darker realism clearly replaces the lightweight, artificial tone expressed earlier in the film. In fact, Sullivan accidentally ends up in his own nightmare, like one of his concocted movie adventures, only this time it’s real and there is no escape. After being hit on the head and left for dead, he ends up charged with a crime he can’t remember (from temporary amnesia) and sentenced to a chain gang, entering a hallucinatory world where he’s quickly woken up by his grotesque mistreatment, denied all privileges like writing or making a phone call, literally becoming a caged animal, caught in a bleaker existence than Hitchcock’s equally downbeat The Wrong Man (1956).
This prolonged sequence of brutality prevented the film from being exported overseas during wartime, so the enemy could not use it for propaganda purposes. But this evolves into an utterly enthralling sequence in a black Pentecostal church, where the pastor (Jess Lee Brooks) vociferously asks his congregation “by word or deed” not to make the all-white chain gang prisoners feel unwelcome, singing “Let My People Go” Go Down Moses - Sullivan's Travels (1941) - YouTube (3:31) as they are led into the front rows to watch a movie together with the parishioners. The race reversal and depth of sorrow of chants from typical black chain gangs does not go unnoticed in this weird twist of fate, where unlike the exaggerated caricature of the black chef early in the film, here blacks are portrayed with utmost dignity and sincerity, becoming the most humane people in the film. It was Sturges intention to play a Chaplin film, but rights were denied, playing a Disney Mickey Mouse cartoon featuring Playful Pluto (1934), where Pluto’s paws continually get caught on fly paper, where the animated pranks and pratfalls leave the congregation in stitches, a welcome relief from the otherwise harsh human conditions. Overall this is a clever and extremely witty film, becoming a populist treatise on humor, where the concise film construction itself is continually unpredictable, becoming a film for the ages. While the film is on a short list of one of the funniest films ever, particularly at the time of its release, it’s perhaps best remembered today for its serious elements, where what’s ostensibly a comedic film brilliantly accentuates the plight of the poor while at the same time highlighting the clueless nature of an affluent class that remains indifferent to their lives, pointing out in an autobiographical context the hypocrisy of a multi-million dollar industry making films about subjects it clearly fails to understand. The film is stunning in its refreshingly honest insight.