Saturday, December 7, 2013

Watch This: Sullivan's Travels

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Sullivan's Travels (1941)
Written and directed by Preston Sturges

Sullivan's Travels is one of the great movies about movies.  There have been numerous other films in which Hollywood has attempted to hold a mirror up to itself, revealing the various stages of the filmmaking process and the inflated egos of studio bosses, directors, and on-screen talent.  Some have approached their subject with reverence, while others have made the industry the target of vicious criticism.  Sullivan's Travels aims for a target somewhere in the middle, lampooning Hollywood producers focused solely on box office revenues, while simultaneously underscoring the value of popular entertainment.

Hollywood director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is tired of making lightweight comedies, films with titles like Hey Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Pants of 1939 (easily two of the best fictional film titles of all time).  He has decided that his next film will be a serious, socially-conscious film about human suffering and misery, an adaptation of a novel entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou? (another wonderful fictional title that was borrowed by the Coen brothers for their 2000 comedy film).  The studio executives point out that Sullivan has lived a privileged life, and knows nothing about hard luck and misery.  He realizes that they are right, and sets out in a hobo costume with only ten cents in his pocket, hoping to learn firsthand what trouble is.

Sullivan's plans are constantly undermined.  The studio has him followed on the road by a luxury tour bus and a team of journalists, whose newspaper stories they hope will generate publicity for his film.  He hitches a ride in the back of a truck, only to find himself back in Hollywood when the truck stops the next morning.  He meets a young woman (Veronica Lake, credited only as The Girl), and she talks him into letting her accompany him on his travels (she knows about trouble, and can help him with his experiment).  Not surprisingly, they fall for each other over the course of their journey.

The story takes some unexpected turns, and Sullivan gets a bigger dose of trouble and hard luck than he originally intended.  At one point, he is imprisoned in a labor camp, and the film's best scene comes when the inmates journey to a local church for a Sunday evening picture show.  An animated Mickey Mouse comedy short puts everyone in the church, parishioners and prisoners alike, in stitches.  Sullivan is at first surprised, then delighted, to find himself joining in the laughter, temporarily forgetting about his woeful circumstances.

The film is brimming over with incredibly funny dialogue.  In the opening scene, as Sullivan describes his serious film to the studio execs ("a commentary on modern conditions, stark realism, the problems that confront the average man"), one of them repeatedly insists that it should have "a little sex in it."  Later in the film, a police officer asks Sullivan why he's wearing such ratty clothes if he's a successful film director.  Sullivan responds, "I just paid my income tax."

Sullivan's Travels is about the importance of film as a means of escapism, uplifting us and lightening our burdens, if only for a couple of hours.  More than anything, the film is a tribute to the power of humor.  Writer/director Preston Sturges was one of the most successful comedy directors of his era, and in a way Sullivan's Travels can be seen as an apologia of sorts, a justification for a career built on laughs.  As if that needed any justification.

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