For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
It takes a clever, clever person to make a funny, powerful, and socially aware movie about the pomposity of a wealthy, socially conscious director, who wants to make a movie about the struggles of the impoverished of the early 1940s. Luckily writer/director Preston Sturges is a clever, clever person.
“Sullivan’s Travels” is the story of John Sullivan (Joel McCrea), an affluent writer and director of musical and comedic motion pictures. As the 40s begin and poverty and joblessness run rampant, Sullivan decides that he should be the voice of the masses. He wants to direct a serious picture, “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?” which will tell the story of the common man, and the struggles of the working class. In other words, this is a picture that Sullivan in no way has the ability to tell.
I would like to briefly note that “Sullivan’s Travels” was the primary inspiration for the Coen Brother’s “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?” Most people cite Homer’s The Odyssey, but the Coen Brother’s are on record as saying that they’d never read The Odyssey. They were however huge fans of “Sullivan’s Travels,” and they wanted to make the picture that John Sullivan may have made, while paying homage to Preston Sturges.
This film is rife with amazing banter. Often the dialogue in “Sullivan’s Travels” moves so quickly and is so well placed that it’s hard to keep up. Just try and keep your head from spinning during this scene, in which Sullivan pitches “O’ Brother” to his producers.
The producers convince Sullivan that he’s not equipped to tell the story of tramps and garbage cans. He’s a wealthy man, who has come from privileged circumstances, but instead of giving up on the idea and returning to light and cheerful fare, Sullivan decides he needs to go out and find trouble. He dresses up like a film set hobo, and sets off with a dime in his pocket and an entourage of doctors, producers, and journalists to keep him safe and document the journey.
Sullivan realizes that he won’t find any real trouble until he escapes his safety net, so at the first opportunity he tries to ditch his followers. It leads to a pretty entertaining chase through the back roads of rural California.
With his plan in place, Sullivan can finally venture out on his own, in order to find the real hard times that face regular folks. He has an awkward run in with an oversexed spinster, and only just escapes out the window. Cold and on foot, Sullivan thumbs a ride with a trucker. He falls asleep in the back and upon waking, discovers he’s back in Hollywood. Sullivan tucks into a mobile diner for some coffee. (Sound starts at 3 seconds.)
Here we get the first hard critique of Sullivan, and his idea. The Girl (Veronica Lake) is okay with Sullivan as long as he’s a hard luck case, who just needs some ham and eggs, but when he starts to preach about times being difficult and people being out of work, she tells him to drink his coffee.
The Girl knows the reality of the times, and doesn’t have the luxury of discourse. The only people who discuss the social ramifications of joblessness, the war in Europe, or food shortages, are those who can afford to. As Sullivan starts to reveal himself by inquiring about her acting, she starts to list the things she doesn’t have. Sullivan’s shallow charade becomes even more transparent.
Oh and Veronica Lake is smoking hot. She’s snappy with her responses, her timing’s right on and she creates a strong foil and love interest for Sullivan in the character of the Girl. She never secured her position as a Hollywood great, because many producers found her Brooklyn accent bothersome, and she acted in a handful of flops. Still her performance here shows us that, over the course of her career, she may have been well under used for her talent.
The girl discovers the truth about Sullivan, and tells him that unless she can join him, she’ll reveal him for a fraud. Sullivan reluctantly agrees to have her along. She puts on the appropriate hobo gear, and off they go. After a couple of false starts, they finally get into the midst of the impoverished, and find themselves in makeshift homeless villages.
This next scene is a montage of the Girl and Sullivan traveling amongst the masses. (Sound starts at 16 seconds)
Sturges is able to do something pretty amazing with the story at this point. He can reveal Sullivan for the sweet, misguided, comic figure that he is, while showing images of poverty, and desperation. Sturges is able to make a social comment by hiding it in the framework of a funny and fun-loving film. The main point of Sturges’ film comes once Sullivan finds some real trouble.
After his journey with the Girl, Sullivan decides to dress as a drifter once more and hand out one thousand dollars in five-dollar bills. A homeless man gets wise to Sullivan, and knocks him out, steals the money, and hides the unconscious Sullivan in a livestock train car. He wakes up confused and one of the rail yard workers forcibly tries to run him off. When he retaliates, Sullivan finds himself convicted of assault, and sentenced to a work camp for six years.
Sullivan is cut off from his safety net. Everyone assumes he’s dead and he’s got no way of contacting anyone. Sullivan has finally become one of the desperate masses. When he and the rest of the prisoners at the work camp get to go to the movies at a local church, Sullivan gets a pleasant surprise.
He doesn’t want a dour, serious piece that tells him how bad his life is. Sullivan finds comfort and relief in laughter. When he finally returns home, Sullivan decides to his next film will be light and funny, the perfect escape for those weary masses.
Sturges has crafted a film in “Sullivan’s Travels” that argues for the power of movies as entertainment and escape, a point that is often lost on those high minded scholars of film. I know I have fallen into the trap of dismissing the idea of film as sheer entertainment at times in the past. But I would like to press the fact that Sturges has not only made an entertaining film, but has also made a thoughtful film that allows us to ponder our place in a large social landscape, and the fruitfulness of discourse that doesn’t allow for some psychological relief. In this case Sturges shows us that laughter may be the best medicine.
With the current economic times the way they are, “Sullivan’s Travels” has a renewed poignancy. It’s just the type of film we need, funny, thoughtful, and with a little sex.
Up next #60 Duck Soup (1933)
For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)
For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)
For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)