Spotlight on Classic Cinema: Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels

Laughter has been proven to be the perfect antidote to misery and its cousins. From the start of movies as a form of entertainment, directors and film crews sought to make the public laugh (while cashing in on their finished product) by presenting situations that while tragic and sometimes downright absurd, often had the audience in stitches, and often ended with the guy getting the girl. During the Depression, which also happened during the advent of sound, comedies went from being purely slapstick to dialog-intensive, which in short, created the screwball comedy. The genre basically flourished during the 30s with the start of It Happened One Night (which went on to receive the top five Oscars, a feat only a scant few movies have done since). By 1941, however, the US was about to enter the War, and the entire genre, which was at its peak, was also starting to seem a bit passe. While cinema had been an escapist’s haven, it was getting harder to identify with the ultra-rich and their silly problems. Dramas were becoming more sophisticated, especially following the giant that was Gone With the Wind. Film-noir was about to take the cinematic world by storm with its pessimistic view of mankind and its underbelly. In essence, the screwball, was unbeknownst to itself, on its way out.

The same way Alfred Hitchcock has been unequivocally recognized as the Master of Suspense, one can say the same for Preston Sturges as the master of the screwball. A look at his filmography showcases a total of 12 movies he directed and almost twice as much that he wrote. During the years 1939 – 1944 alone he directed a total of five movies — all of them confirmed essentials and screwball comedies. There is distinct energy that separates Sturges’ movies from the rest. The dialog, which he himself wrote, aside from being somewhat slower-paced than, say, the dialog in Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday (which moves at lightning speed and also overlaps, sometimes rendering a conversation unintelligible), is also pretty modern compared to the period. You can also get criticism of the America of the time in which its protagonist becomes a mirror to the movie-going audience and not an unattainable hero. Sure, sometimes the hero (or heroine; Sturges never had a weak female in his movies) has to act a little (okay, maybe ruthlessly) deceptive, but it’s for a goal at hand, and no one really gets hurt. Interestingly so, Sturges definitely does not, like many of his counterparts, side with the ultra-rich, but those who struggle. Cue The Palm Beach Story in which Claudette Colbert plays quite a con-woman out to get rich who encounters a group of rich douchebags on the way. What these men do in the movie counts as pretty reprehensible, which only magnifies the bubble in which the privileged live. You almost want an outsider to their group to come and give them a taste of their own medicine.

Case in point, the movie I will talk about: Sullivan’s Travels. We meet John Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a movie director who gets fed up with the system of rampant commercialism. [A sly wink to the establishment if I ever saw one.] He decides to walk cross-country dressed like a bum to experience life on his own terms. Meanwhile, his crew follows, only to make sure that he makes it out alive at the other end. During his walk, he comes across a very different country. Here is where Sullivan’s Travels makes a bold, unheard-of detour and skirts close to the topics of The Grapes of Wrath. Sturges doesn’t shy away from it, either. He brings abject poverty right to the front of the movie in having Sullivan and the unnamed girl he meets (Veronica Lake) smack into an America that serves only to pay for a theater ticket — not to be seen or heard from. Situations continue to go from bad to worse. While trying to repay the homeless he’s met he gets mugged, and this only gets worse and worse until at one point Sullivan is declared dead. The film’s most striking sequence, however, arrives like a punch to the face: in the middle of a church that occasionally doles out movies for an audience of forgotten people, Sturges makes us look directly at their haggard, worn, tired faces. A Mickey Mouse reel starts; the audience — Sullivan among them — roars with laughter. It is a heartbreaking scene, but the one that is at the core of what Sullivan’s Travels is trying to say.

Laughing to escape misery. Joel McCrea in Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

That’s a stark contrast with, let’s say, The Philadelphia Story. By the end of Sullivan’s Travels, you feel as though you know these people. Both Lake’s and McCrea’s characters, while grounded in privilege, still look like you or me. The two of them work on opposite sides of the movie industry, and both have become jaded by it. The movie seems to hinge on the promise/plot point that Sullivan won’t reveal his true name to the girl, but as the story evolves, she becomes his non-romantic companion if at all to see other places. By the end, when the movie returns to its comedic roots, both have ended their journey much wiser even though we figure they will still live on in privilege. Such a thing never happens in The Philadelphia Story. A movie made solely as a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn to prove herself in Hollywood against all odds, Story has become a bit of an antiquated comedy of manners in which everyone pretends to be someone else and no one is truly sympathetic, We get only a snippet of side plot for supporting — and the much more interesting — characters of Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) and Macaulay Connor (James Stewart). Of course, these twosome exist only in strict support of the lead couple, which is a shame. I always found that theirs was a story that needed to be told. By the end, when all is well again and Tracy Lord has remarried, we don’t really think about what we saw other than “we’ve just seen what problems for the upper crust must look like. Bubble, indeed.

Sullivan’s Travels is now 80 years old. However, it has managed to influence a number of directors. Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, which also draws heavily from Fellini’s 8 1/2, also features a director unable to continue with his projects and whose audience asks that he return to “the funnier ones”. Mel Brooks’ Life Stinks is a parody of Sullivan’s Travels which did not do well at the box office when it came out (but deserves another shot on rentals). Most recently, the Coen brothers seem to have taken a cue from Sturges. Sullivan’s Travels often mentions the title “O Brother, Where Art Thou”, which became a movie with George Clooney, and their 2016 movie Hail, Caesar! (also starring Clooney) also has its roots in the Sturges classic.

Two Examples of Smart Science Fiction: The House at the End of Time and Stowaway

I’m not exactly sure why Alejandro Hidalgo’s 2013 movie The House at the End of Time (La casa del fin de los tiempos) is considered a horror movie. While the surface presentation has all the makings of a woman in peril from an unseen threat, which is the bread and butter of all things horror, this is a very intelligent movie about time, our relation to it, and the act of repetition that condemns generations to never leave the START position.

To begin with, the movie starts in media res. A woman (Ruddy Rodriguez of Venezuelan soap fame and established film actress) lies on the floor. She’s either witnessed or been involved in a terrible supernatural struggle that has knocked her cold for a moment — a crucial one. In the interim, she realizes that her son is missing and something terrible is about to happen. Upon arriving at the lowest part of the house she discovers the body of her husband (Gonzalo Cubero), and her son, standing nearby. Before she can make a move to grab him, Leopoldo vanishes, seemingly pulled from behind by an unknown force.

The woman returns to her home years later. We learn she was, by Venezuelan law, found guilty of killing not only her husband but her entire family. After serving time, the courts have granted her to live out the rest of her years in house arrest where she will have guards at the ready outside her home (as if house arrest weren’t bad enough already!). Not soon after she arrives, the supernatural elements return to torment her, and we wonder, will she repeat the actions of the past, or is there a much larger force at play that involves whatever lives within the walls of her house?

Much of the story hinges on what happens in the present, which inevitably catches up not with the future but with the opening sequence. The story incurs into elements of time as an elastic concept: what has or will happen may have already been a part of a chain of events, which may be a part of a bigger wheel altogether. In this respect, The House at the End of Time veers closer to science-fiction than horror. How it splices events that may be occurring at the same time, while also maintaining a sense of high domestic drama involving the dissolution of the family is a marvel to watch. That the movie never tries to go too deep into its mythos is key to its success. It presents a backstory, which is almost a necessary evil in most horror movies nowadays — especially those that involve dark places — but that in itself never overwhelms the logic of this illogical movie that plays its story over and over again like a Moebius strip. Anchored by a sharp performance by Ruddy Gonzalez and a cast of mainly unknowns on this side of the [Caribbean] Sea, The House at the End of Time is a great example of doing much with less. In doing so, it can deliver a gripping story that of maternal love that defies space and time. On Amazon Prime.

Meanwhile, on Netflix, is a little science fiction movie called Stowaway, and believe me, I almost didn’t see this movie based on its title alone. Doesn’t the title give you an idea of a space mission that (shocker!) either carries or brings an unwanted organism on board, one with an insatiable appetite? I know! So the look of surprise when I come to realize early on that this is far, far different from that type of sci-fi horror movie. In fact, Stowaway is about survival, but of an entirely different nature altogether. Stowaway centers on a group of astronauts en route on a two-year mission to Mars. Soon after launching, the head of the mission, Marina Barnett (Toni Collette) discovers a man unconscious inside the ship. The man turns out to be Michael (Shamier Anderson), a tech who passed out right before take-off and was thus unable to get off the ship in time.

In another science fiction movie, his appearance would be relegated to almost a non-event unless the character was an antagonist (as in the case of the rebooted version of Lost in Space, also on Netflix). Director Joe Penna and Ryan Morrisson have concocted a much different scenario here. You see, it turns out that the ship can only house three people, not four. This being a two-year mission now complicates matters. While the small crew, which consists of biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) and sensitive Dr. Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) try to make Michael fit in, it becomes increasingly clear that Michael is more of a hindrance and could seriously jeopardize their entire mission to the point that nobody could survive in the end.

I love it when movies go the route of the humanistic side of the conflict as opposed to the by-the-numbers one vs. them plot which has been done so many times it practically arrives precooked and prepackaged for immediate consumption and instant forgetting. Stowaway delivers four fully fleshed-out characters who are caught in an unfortunate situation that is fay beyond their control. It never feels forced and focuses the attention to see how the foursome reacts not to one another but also to the constant peril that they face. There is a sense of slight sadness throughout the entire movie, one that gets magnified the deeper we get into the story. The entire tone of somberness, in fact, helps Stowaway achieve a feeling of tragic transcendence that becomes almost palpable in its final sequences. This is a solid second effort from the same director who in 2019 brought the survival movie the Arctic with Mads Mikkelsen, Highly recommended.

One Month of Movies, but stepping back from the act of writing about them

The occupation of being a film critic, ego or no ego, is to be a [subjective] communicator who can reflect an idea, an interpretation if you will, of what it means to have seen a film, or an entire television series (in the days of binge-watching, so common now). I’ve been banging at the laptop for a good 15 or so years now, starting via IMDB.com as a simple user with a keyboard and continuing on my own site of the same name as this one (which, as I wrote in my first post from February, did not transfer successfully to this current version). Film critique is a practice that I thoroughly enjoy. After having watched a movie, or finished a limited series, I’ve got all these ideas swirling around in my head as of the information that I’ve been presented with, and now, the task of putting it all together into something called “my interpretation”. Sometimes I’ve turned out stuff that made me feel truly accomplished. Last year, in the middle of the pandemic, I wrote an extremely long essay on Luca Guadagnino’s short movie The Staggering Girl. That 40-minute movie affected me in more ways than anything I’d ever seen, to the point that I make it a point to see it whenever I feel a sense of grounding myself, and thus, finding whatever it was that I lost to the ravages of time and being an adult in the middle of corporate hell.

At the same time, I’ve submitted less than stellar writings. As a matter of fact, I’ve put out quickie reviews just to meet my own personal quota and make sure that whoever was reading me would see a new post every other day whether the movie was good or not, whether I even cared about the movie or not. I realized that this was not where I wanted to be. I don’t want to be just another reviewer who sees everything that gets released week after week; it’s just not me. Considering where I live plus the accessibility to an almost limitless online streaming content I’m almost navigating against the current, barely able to catch my breath as I start another two hours with a new movie, and so on and so forth. [Trust me when I say I can easily watch a good two movies per weekday, and as much as six to eight during a weekend.] Perhaps, by cutting back a bit, I may be missing on that brilliant new work that [insert name here] turned out, and for that, I can accept it. I will never be able to see every last thing that cinemas turn out; I now realize that I simply don’t want to. I want to be able to for once, simply enjoy the art of viewing, and leave it at that, and if I feel like it, express my thoughts, rather than feel compelled — obligated — to perform an analysis and tack on a completely subjective rating.

Speaking of ratings, I think it’s also time to retire that. What I consider good or bad is entirely my own view, my own appreciation of “what works and doesn’t work” in a cinematic experience. And who’s to say that I may, on a day I felt rather irritated, transferred my aggravation into a perfectly innocent vehicle? Many critics have stated that after the fourth or even fifth movie during an all-day festival felt exhausted and borderline ornery and gave the last one a less than favorable review simply because they were tired and their eyes hurt. That’s not fair for the finished product nor the director and his team who set out to simply entertain, and also make money. While there is no shortage of bad art out there, no one sets out to make bad art. I don’t have to emit a juicy negative opinion filled with snark and thinly veiled anger only to make my viewers chuckle. That was an institution that critics from 100 years ago established only to place themselves before the movie (or play), and thus, entertain by schadenfreude and mockery. There is too much of that already and I don’t feel as though I want to be a part of that. I don’t claim to have the last word. If I did, I’d be a snob, and I know way too many who are mainstays at art-house cinemas who produce cringe-worthy viewpoints when all I saw was a simple romance with a slight social statement (to name an example).

During the month of July, I saw no less than 12 movies ranging from new releases to restored classics, and a few short series. I may try to get to all of these, and if I do, fine, and if I don’t, that’s fine, too. I just don’t want to only be writing day after day after day as if it were an occupation. Unless I feel a connection to the project or its director, I probably won’t devote time to write about it. That simply means that I may be cutting back a bit and taking a point, midyear, to take off from watching and reviewing films, at least the lull before the New York Film Festival. So that is it, before I turn this into a tl;dr post, I just felt that I needed to address this into cyberspace, purge it from my system, and carry on with what truly interests me instead of churning out 10 reviews a week about 15 new and upcoming releases. I want that my personal views mean something, not simply parrot a elitist’s consensus about a film or series of films.

So, there it is. Now, to move on, whatever August may bring. Happy watching!