Monday, 4 March 2013

Sullivan's Travels (1941)

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We are back again in good ol’ 41 to finally get on with the list. This time with Preston Sturges “Sullivan’s Travels” and it is good to be back when you are in such good company.

“Sullivan’s Travels” is a comedy about a successful director of comedies (Joel MCrea) who gets it into his head that he will make socially indignant movies about the troubles of the unfortunate. He soon realizes that he has not got a clue how people live outside his protected Beverly Hills home and so he ventures out as a bum with 10 cents in his pocket to explore life in the gutter. But this is not so easy when you are a naïve and inexperienced prince of Hollywood and all your dependents are trying to get you back in safety.

This sounds funny and it is. It is not a deep movie and the social indignity is mainly a comical instrument, but it works and Sullivan is just about the worst bum in the world. Joel McCrea gives Sullivan intensity and a zeal, he really insists on learning how to be a hobo and it is not easy. First he has to get away from his entourage following him in that ridiculous tour bus (love the chef!), then becomes the love slave of two crones (check out the scene in the cinema, his expression is glorious) and when he finally succeeds he gets sick and hungry and have to bug out.

As a bum he meets The Girl in the shape of Veronica Lake. He could definitely do worse. I now realize that Veronica Lake is the template for all these later “forties babes” (Like L.A. Confidential). She is quite amazing. From the moment she enters the film she steals the picture both through her sheer looks but particularly for her comical qualities.  She is good as the fed up wannabe actress who just wants the film industry to go screw itself, so perfectly cynical and honest and even when she finds out he really is a famous director she is hard to impress.  I love the idea of having her dress up as a boy and come along with him. That is like the worst idea in the world and together they are even more miserable at being bums.

The most important test of any comedy is if you laugh from them. As this is a film to celebrate the comedy, those who make them and laughter as medicine for the soul the laughing criteria becomes even more important. “Sullivan’s Travels” succeeds gloriously. I laughed throughout. In the car chase, in the cinema with the crones, when he gets arrested for stealing his own car and all the wonderful wisecracks. To why he does not have any money: “I just paid my income tax”.

All this works really nicely for the first hour. Then we get the drama. Sullivan is assumed dead, but actually convicted to 6 years of hard labor for trespassing and assault. Since his prison is a chain gang of the “I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” type he cannot get contact to the outside world and will have to come to terms with the fact that he is going to be there for a long time. This part did not work so well for me. This change of tone is quite abrupt and seems to convey some real social indignity. Uf, those horrible chain gangs. It seems a bit artificial and hypocrite in the sense that the film assumes there are different laws for hobos and Hollywood movie directors. Well, I am sure there is, but playing that card undermines the indignity. If only he can prove he is a move director it will be okay that he trespassed and hit the rail worker.

But that is really a minor detail in the bigger picture. Sullivan realizes that making funny movies is okay because it makes people happy and so he is back in business and does not need to make his own “Grapes of Wrath”. He even gets rid of his succubus of a wife so he can marry the super hot Veronica Lake.

Sullivan film project is called “O Brother where art thou” and that point of course toward the Coen brothers film of the same name. While I am still considering what those two films have in common another later movie to reference to “Sullivan’s Travels” is “Trading places”. Is also explores the comedy of a fish out of the water or maybe it is just that Eric Blore reminds me of Coleman (Denholm Elliott). Ah well.

In any case, an excellent comedy that was a real bliss to watch. Ah, it is good to be back in 41.


  1. From what I've read the Coens just used that title for their film as a little joke, not to indicate there is any link between the films. Actually, the Coens' film is loosely based on the tale of Odysseus more than anything else.

    I've got Sullivan's Travels noted for when I someday do a category of films that start out as comedies then become dramas.

    1. that makes sense. I could not find many parallels. Although I later thought that maybe the Coen Brothers wanted to make the movie Sullivan intended to make. That may be a stretch though.

      I will keep an eye out for your review.

  2. "playing that card undermines the indignity."

    Completely agreed.

    And you know I'm in the same boat as you in terms of feeling let down by the ending. BUT - I also agree with you that the screwball madcap comedy at the beginning is pretty fantastic.

    1. It is indeed. I thought I was just being ungrateful when I found the turn in the movie odd and misplaced, even arrogant, but now I have read a lot of reviews and it turns out I am actually quite generous. I was in a good mood that evening.