Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Picture 14

Director: Preston Sturges

Producers: Paul Jones, Buddy G. DeSylva, Preston Sturges (Paramount)

Writer: Preston Sturges (screenplay)

Photography: John F. Seitz

Music: Charles Bradshaw, Leo Shuken

Casts: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall, Byron Foulger, Margaret Hayes, Robert Greig, Eric Blore, Torben Meyer, Victor Potel, Richard Webb, Charles R. Moore

Second to the king, Ernst Lubistch, there was only ever one man as skilled, tender, hilarious and influential in pioneering the romantic comedy — Preston Sturges. Few directors’ films are as joyous to watch, and every buff has his or her favorite, from The Lady Eve (1941), with Henry Fonda as the gullible doop for disgusied ex-lover Barbara Stanwyck, to The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), where Betty Hutton wakes up after a WWII send-off party to find herself pregnant and married, with no memory of how it happened.

But for my money, there’s no finer stretch of the filmmaker’s career than the 11 months between Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story, both written and directed by Sturges, produced by Paul Jones at Paramount, dangling Joel McCrea as the understated, likable lead and featuring Sturges’ usual cast of characters — Robert Warwick, William Demarest, Robert Greig, Torben Meyer, Victor Potel and the gang. The films are wonders to behold, masterfully directed, socially conscious, yet highly hilarious, and they’ve influenced countless filmmakers to follow, namely the Coen Brothers, who’ve homaged Sturges honorably throughout their careers, from Raising Arizona (1987) to Barton Fink (1991), and most obviously in their selecting a title for O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000).

Sullivan’s Travels, not to be confused with Jonathan Swift’s literary satire Gulliver’s Travels, may be the film industry’s most poignant self-satire on its own eternal battle between art and profit. It follows John “Sully” Sullivan (McCrea), a hit Hollywood director of light comedies, beloved by audiences and studio execs alike for his steady, profitable, escapist entertainment. Yet just after his successful 1939 comedy, Ants in Your Pants, Sully feels the urge to direct against type and make a film “like Capra,” an epic, social commentary called O Brother, Where Art Thou? about the despair of Depression-era America, though the template is no doubt Ford’s Grapes of Wrath (1940). Against the wishes of the studio, who would like him to keep making simple comedies, Sully sets off to find inspiration for his “serious” piece in the only way he knows how — to go undercover as a hobo and live amongst the impoverished people of America.

Hitting the road and looking for trouble, he meets a failed actress (Veronica Lake), who insists on joining him on his journey. Reluctantly, he agrees, disgusing her as a boy and promising to introduce her to Lubitsch when the trip is through. Of course, the two fall in love, starting a relationship that’s complicated when a highly-publicized bit of mistaken identity sends Sullivan off to jail. It’s there that he finally connects with the lowest of humanity, laughing hysterically at a Pluto cartoon, and for the first time acknowledges both the true power of laughter and his own life’s importance as a comedy filmmaker —-a discovery that no doubt reflects the feelings of Sturges himself.

Every major filmmaker commits something to film history, both on screen and off. To the former, Sturges’ contribution was this championing of comedy over tragedy. To the latter, it was his place as the first writer to make it as a successful director, blazing a trail for guys like Billy Wilder, John Huston and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (A). Sullivan’s Travels, voted #29 on the Writers Guilds 101 Screenplays, is Sturges’ broadest work, blending all modes of humor, from physical comedy (Pluto’s pratfalls), innuendo (dusting a bedpost) and witty dialogue (“with a little sex in it”).

Still, one can’t help but feel that his script’s biggest asset is its very premise. The idea of a director going undercover to research a picture was one of the first self-reflexive movies, a decade before Sunset Blvd. (1950), All About Eve (1950), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). And as any good self-reflexive film should do, Sturges pokes great fun at his chosen business, beginning his film with “The End” and naming his heroine simply “The Girl” to mock the idea that “every movie has a girl.” He even jabs at the era’s censors, staring down a production code that forbade couples in the same bed, and instead laying Lake next to McCrea in the hay of a traincar or in the close quarters of a flophouse, with hoards of homeless bodies forcing them closer (A).

This ability to buck the Hollywood system was a luxury Sturges could afford as the seventh-highest earning individual in Hollywood. But it was a luxury he would soon have to surrender, when new Paramount head Buddy DeSylva fired him two years later (A). It was actually on Sullivan’s Travels that the two first clashed, over the casting of Lake, whom Sturges enthusiastically wanted, but whom DeSylva did not because she was six-months pregnant at the time (A). Sturges stuck to his guns and hired Edith Head to design special costumes to conceal Lake’s belly, a decision that launched her career into the sex symbol stratosphere. The role popularized her signature “peak-a-boo” style of silky blonde hair hanging over one eye — think Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential (1997) — and funny enough, the government actually made her pull the hair back for a war picture in 1943 (B). Sturges’ autonomy, as exemplified in the casting of Lake, went perfectly with the fact that Sullivan’s Travels was the first script he wrote knowing he would himself direct it. His three prior films — The Great McGinty, Christmas in July and The Lady Eve — were pulled off his shelf for him to direct after the fact (A).

As such, Sullivan’s Travels remains Sturges’ most personal effort, the first where he was an all-encompassing author, writing with directing in mind, and coming at a time when he had the most control over his own work. It’s the shining gem in his auteur sensibility, the one that most clearly demonstrates his world view —  “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.” Sullivan’s Travels is a celebration of this thing we call comedy, dedicated to the Chaplins and Marxes and Bennys, “to the memory of those who made us laugh…whose efforts have lightened our burden a little.” It’s a film about the uplifting potential of a good laugh, ranking not only #39 on AFI’s 100 Laughs, but #25 on AFI’s 100 Cheers.

As Variety’s Todd McCarthy wrote, the film achieves “a synthesis that is both terribly funny and deeply moving” (A), and in the end, it’s arguably more inspirational than it is funny, uplifting in laughter like the end of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). It does so by hitting upon a certain truth, the same truth that Lawrence Kasdan references in Grand Canyon (1991), when Steve Martin tells Kevin Kline to watch Sullivan’s Travels for its message of self-discovery. Beyond even the power of laughter, Sullivan’s Travels reminds us of the movies’ source of answers and escape for people, peaking in a fittingly symbolic scene where a movie is shown in a church sanctuary.

In this sense, Sturges’ approach is less a rebuff of Capra, as some might think, and more a sharing of Capra’s own strengths in pathos (“What’s wrong with Capra?”). When it came to understanding the importance of connecting with audiences, making them gullible to laugher and emotion, none were shamelessly better than Capra and Sturges. Though Capra often bit off more serious material, both he and the Sturges are prime examples of this book’s inquiry into the balance of high- and low-brow moviedom. Travels is Sturges’ statement that low-brow filmmaking can be every bit as effective as high-brow. It’s his own self-assurance that low-brow is what he does, and in this light, the film is sort of an anti-message movie with a message, the message being that messages are often pointless, that is unless, that’s the message (say that 10 times fast).

Ironically, Sturges incorporates a voice and vision worthy of high-brow acclaim. In addition to maintaining a rock-solid tone throughout, Struges stretches the cinematic eye — tinkering with speeds (slowing during a car chase; quickening during pool splashes and a hilarious running tumble from the train); creating a woozy, out-of-focus haze for the court trial; employing cinematographer John F. Seitz (Sunset Blvd., Double Indemnity) for moments of noir (perfect for the idea that fate keeps drawing him back to Hollywood); daring to create a seven-minute silent sequence in the shantytown, capturing a Chaplin-like humanity in his portrayal of mass poverty; and a perfect low-angle shot of chained feet shuffling down a church aisle to a chorus of “Go Down Moses,” prisoners on their way to pews vacated by a forgiving congregation. For all its message of comedy, Travels remains a work of great social depth and poignant reminders, commenting on identity, class, celebrity and each’s accountability to the law. To mix such themes with comedy is a rare feat, but then Sturges was a rare talent.

Initially, his work received mixed reviews, and as late as 1997, the film did not appear on the AFI’s Top 100 Films. But after a decade of increased post-modern thinking, Sullivan’s Travels made the AFI 10th Anniversary list at #61, a victory for film buffs eager to welcome Sturges, McCrea and Lake into the Top 100 fold. Aside from this desire to add these individual cogs into the evolving listology wheel, some may see the film’s addition as the AFI’s own recognition of the power of laughter, and the importance of Sturges as a master of that avenue.

Citations:

CITE A: Criterion Collection DVD booklet, Todd McCarthy introduction
CITE B: David Thomson, New Biographical Dictionary of Film

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