US (1941) Dir. Preston Sturges
There is a certain irony in the fact that this celebrated satire on the po-faced loftiness of Hollywood filmmaking was released the same year as Citizen Kane – a film which intellectually was far beyond anything Tinsel Town had produced at that point – while writer-director Preston Sturges suggests it’s okay to make simple films which make us laugh.
John L. “Sully” Sullivan (Joel McCrae) has made his name and fortune directing frothy comedies but wants to make more weighty films, like O Brother Where Art Thou?, an exploration on the poor and homeless. His studio boss Mr. Lebrand (Robert Warwick) refuses to sanction this, so Sully decides to live like a hobo for two weeks to experience firsthand the plight of the downtrodden to make the film as realistic as possible.
Today this idea of Sully’s is the concept for a “reality” TV show, except with z-list celebrities, so maybe Sturges was being prescient as well as sarcastic. Naturally the studio couldn’t afford to allow a prized employee to come to any harm living the transient life so Sully’s own equerry are on hand in a prototype mobile home to ensure his mission is trouble free, of course defeating the whole purpose of it.
Straight away we don’t know if Lebrand is protecting the person or protecting his cash cow, one of the more subtle allusions of this delightfully trenchant script, along with Sully’s sham marriage which was supposed to save him money except his “vulture” wife (Jan Buckingham) is spending all his money and won’t grant him a divorce as she is playing around with Sully’s business manager (who suggested the deal!).
Ironically while as a hobo, Sully earns his keep working for a lecherous widow Miz Zeffie (Esther Howard) whose attempts to smarten Sully up to replace her late husband sees him make a break for it. Hitching a ride in a delivery truck Sully wakes up to find he is back in Hollywood, which he views a fate, a faint metaphor to suggest Sully shouldn’t wander beyond his creative safety zone.
Cheering himself up with a ten cent coffee, a young woman (Veronica Lake) buys Sully breakfast with her last money as she is heading home after failing to make it in films. Keen to repay her, Sully – keeping his identity secret – “borrows” his own car to take the girl for a drive but after being arrested (a tramp driving a flash car?) his cover is blown.
At first the girl feels like a fool but Sully is keen to continue his mission to experience poverty and the girl decides to join him since she has nothing else to do. And there we leave the plot summary because the episodic nature of the story means it is likely the whole review would be a recap of every event.
In all actuality this is complimentary to Sturges for writing such an involved and eventful screenplay since the developments outlined above barely scratch the surface of what transpires during the film’s surprisingly brief 86 minute run time. Sully does indeed go on one heck of a journey and it is rather difficult not to discuss each situation individually as they are all integral to both the story and the message.
The second half of the film is more serious with the witty, rapid fire dialogue and comic set-ups a faint memory in the wake of the poignant drama which turns the film on its head. Whilst much of the first half deals with stereotypes and caricatures to highlight the vacuity of the Hollywood lifestyle it is here that this is reversed and Sturges, in a bold move for the time, uses a church made up entirely of a black congregation with a black preacher opening its doors to less fortunate white men without prejudice or dissent.
Having taken Sully as low as he get without being dead (ahem!), Sturges goes all meta when our hero has his “Eureka” moment to revive his fortunes (“If ever a plot needed a twist, this one does”), again another beautifully played moment that both justifies and ridicules Sully’s original noble cinematic aspirations in one deft swoop.
Yet this was lost on critics and cinemagoers alike and this film was not a big success, which brings me back to my earlier point about the irony of its arrival after Citizen Kane, positing this as something of a cynical response yet just as much of a kindred spirit. Neither film lit up the box office at the time and it took years before they were both appreciated. In this case many failed to understand the allegorical nature of Sturges’s work, even those who got the message he was sharing.
It is not a laugh out loud funny film yet its comedic charm is evident in the fluidity of the delivery the verbose dialogue, each line bristling with wit, underlined with a purposeful meaning, statement or simple observation. The sight gags are deliberate ploys to show the value of simple slapstick yet Sturges is not above sending them up either but when the film turns darker later on, the noir-esque overtones are completely credible.
Joel McCrae was the first and only choice for Sullivan and didn’t let Sturges down whilst Veronica Lake angered the director by not telling him she was six months pregnant when filming started. However she and McCrae created a unique chemistry despite hating each other, which may not have occured had original choice Barbara Stanwyck taken the role. The support cast was made up of Sturges regulars featuring many recognisable character actors in fun roles.
Fortunately the ensuing years and changing attitudes towards comedy have been kind to Sullivan’s Travels and it has now been hailed as classic. It might still be a bit twee for modern audiences but it is plainly a masterful piece of storytelling with a vibrant sardonic edge, evidently too advanced for its time.