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.

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