Sullivan’s Travels – 1942
Written and Directed by Preston Sturges
SULLIVAN: "I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity, a true canvas of the suffering of humanity..."
STUDIO EXEC: "But with a little sex."
SULLIVAN: “…but with a little sex.”
John Sullivan (Joel McRae) is a famous Hollywood director of screwball comedies. Sick of all the suffering and injustice in the world, he convinces the studio to allow him to make a socially conscious drama entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou? Deciding that he knows nothing about trouble or poverty, he goes on the road disguised as a hobo. After a false start, he ends up back in Hollywood and meets an aspiring actress (Veronica Lake) who is about ready to give up her dream and go back home. Together, they set off again in an attempt to learn about the common man. It turns out that the real world is much harder than they ever thought it would be.
Sullivan’s Travels was one of the first great satires of Hollywood. Preston Sturges was a very-well known director of comedies and was very interested in social issues, but he felt that job as a film director was to entertain, not to educate. Sturges said that this film was “an urge to tell some of my fellow film wrights that they were getting a little too deep-dish and to leave the preaching to the preachers. Sullivan’s Travels could really have been a little pamphlet sent around privately. Maybe it should have been."
In a direct sense, Sullivan’s Travels is Preston Sturges' attempt to negotiate his role as a creator of comedies with his interest in social problems. The social commentary behind the film comes through most vividly during the sequences depicting the cruelties the prisoners are subjected to and the chain gang's visit to an African-American church, suggesting a common bond of suffering. Sturges manages to have his cake and eat it too, the first half of the film skewers big studio politics and is full of witty dialogue and pratfalls, while the second half is very dark and attempts to deal with the realities of life. The US Office of Censorship, concerned that the film might be used as propaganda by the enemy during World War II, asked Paramount to cut some of the harsher scenes; the studio refused, and as a result the film was not allowed to be exported during the war.
The performances in this film are excellent and the dialogue absolutely sparkles. The opening scene is a cool four-minute long tracking shot as Sullivan tries to convince the studio bosses to go along with his scheme, the words coming rapid–fire out of the actor’s mouths. Veronica Lake starts out as a very sultry, mysterious woman. After seeing her first scene, I am now really interested in seeing her in a film-noir movie, she seems like a superb femme fatale (must..find..copy..of..The Blue Dhalia). Unfortunately, as the film progresses her character seems to get a lot dumber and she exists only to fill the role of “The Girl.” Well, that is the name of her character, maybe I’m asking a bit too much.
In today’s Hollywood of bloated egos and pompous actors, Sullivan’s Travels still seems very relevant. I think that one of the reasons I like this movie so much is that I agree with Preston Sturges. I go to the movies to be entertained and forget my worries, not to be schooled in the problems of the real world.
SULLIVAN: "What do they know in Pittsburgh?"
STUDIO EXEC: "They know what they like."
SULLIVAN: "If they knew what they liked, they wouldn't live in Pittsburgh."
Yes, Starke and I both watched the same broadcast of this movie on Turner Classic Movies tonight. What can I say, great minds think alike.