Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

The willing vagabond.

“There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have?”

Recently, I’ve found myself unwittingly watching ’50s movies. All. The. Time. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with ’50s cinema; some of my all-time favorite films were made during that glorious decade. However, I chose to explore the true “Golden Age” of Hollywood, and found that my ’40s binge was more rewarding than I could’ve hoped.

During this spree, I came across some of the finest films ever made and added several to my already lengthy favorites list. However, perhaps the greatest of all the 1940s films I watched was Preston Sturges’ masterful Sullivan’s Travels. I think the reason behind its obscurity nowadays is that it is somewhat overshadowed by films such as Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, How Green Was My Valley, and Suspicion, all of which were also released in ’41. Still, for any fan of comedy, of superb acting and direction, or of stories that will leave you feeling happier, Sullivan’s Travels is a must-see.

I sat down to watch this film with, I must admit, fairly low expectations. Once it started, however, I staggered back in awe. Seriously, this is a great film.

(Dear reader, I realize that I say that quite a bit. So far, I’ve only reviewed my favorite films, and I’ve said roughly the same thing about each one: “This is a good movie!” Don’t worry; at some point, I will review some movies I hate. Won’t that be fun?)

Joel McCrea (one of my favorite actors), who has exhibited his enormous talent in nearly 100 films (spanning from the ’20s to the ’70s!), shows his comic adeptness AND his dramatic abilities in Sullivan’s Travels. He is an instantly likable fellow, and does not have too little or too much emotion. I first became cognizant of his skill when I watched Hitchcock’s early spy thriller, Foreign Correspondent (1940), in which he gives a (surprise!) great performance. And I’m not the only one who likes him; he has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Veronica Lake… *wolf whistle* I mean, what can I say about her that you can’t figure out for yourself? She’s gorgeous! (And, apparently, rather short. She measured 4′ 11 1/2″, whilst Joel McCrea was a “towering” 6′ 3″. It’s been said that, in some scenes, Lake had to be placed atop a box so their heads could be seen in the same shot.) I expected her to be aloof and seemingly unattainable, but in this film she was actually quite vulnerable, sincere, and, of course, unbelievably beautiful. Her presence is yet another compliment to an already fantastic film.

And I can’t sanely review this film without saying something about its writer/director, Preston Sturges. Sturges was the undisputed king of screwball comedy during the ’30s and ’40s (giving us films such as The Lady Eve, Miracle at Morgan’s Creek, The Great McGinty, and Hail the Conquering Hero, whose sly banter and clever storylines constantly challenged the Puritanical Hays Code). He was also THE FIRST prominent screenwriter to direct his own script.

One reason this satire of Hollywood is SO wonderful is the sincerity with which the story is told. I don’t mean it’s sappy. But it’s not just a continuous laugh-fest or a box-o’-Kleenex movie. It’s a brilliant, unpredictable mixture of both. For a comedy, it’s very moving; for a drama, it’s hilarious. I guarantee you’ll be satisfied, or your money back.

But wait, there’s more!

Synopsis

Tired of making fluffy, forgettable comedies, Hollywood director John L. Sullivan (McCrea) wants to put all his creative effort into a serious, socially responsible drama called “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” His producers point out that Sullivan knows absolutely nothing about poverty or suffering. Thus, Sullivan decides to put himself in a vagabond’s shoes (literally). However, his experiment hardly goes as planned, and he soon comes across a downtrodden aspiring actress, who longs to join him on his journey. And when the experiment seems to be nearly done, a series of events places Sullivan in a tighter spot than he had ever imagined.

Information

Directed by Preston Sturges;

Written by Preston Sturges;

Starring Joel McCrea as John L. Sullivan and Veronica Lake as The Girl (with a Sturges regular, William Demarest, as Mr. Jones);

Produced by Paul Jones (associate producer), Buddy G. DeSylva (executive producer, uncredited), and Preston Sturges (producer, uncredited);

Costumes by Edith Head;

Music by Charles Bradshaw and Leo Shuken.

Facts

Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen borrowed the title of John L. Sullivan’s fictional project for their 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The author of the fake book, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, was an amalgamation of the names of Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and John Steinbeck.

Preston Sturges supposedly got the idea for the movie from stories of John Garfield living the life of a hobo, riding freight trains and hitchhiking his way cross-country, for a short period in the 1930s.

Veronica Lake was pregnant during filming.

NAACP Secretary Walter White wrote a letter to Preston Sturges congratulating him for his “dignified and decent treatment of Negroes in this [the church] scene.”

Preston Sturges had originally intended to use a clip from a Charles Chaplin film for the church sequence, but Chaplin wouldn’t give permission. In an earlier scene, Joel McCrea does parody the Little Tramp character. The cartoon eventually used was Walt Disney’s Playful Pluto (1934).

-luke

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “Practically unknown?” Sullivan’s Travels was a huge hit that cemented Sturges’s career and reputation in Hollywood. Also he was the very first Hollywood writer to direct his own script, not just “one of” them. Even the barest minimum of research would have prevented these glaring errors.

    • Well, Harper, I appreciate your gentle criticism. However, I didn’t mean it was unknown at the time of its release, or even now, among fans/studiers of classic film. I simply meant it was not instantly recognizable to those who are relatively new to classic film (for whom this blog is generally intended). At least not nearly as recognizable as certain films of the same time, such as those I’ve listed (Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, etc). Sad? Yes. True? Yes.

      I realize my glaring errors and have made the appropriate changes.

  2. Facts aside, I believe you captured the gleeful enthusiasm and magical marvel of seeing a truly great film such as SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS for the first time. I remember being absolutely blown away when I first saw it, one late night during my teenage years, and the sheer energy and sincerity of your post is certainly proof that the stirring effect of this film has not dimmed with the passage of time– if nothing else it has only strengthened it. Thank you for sharing!

    • That’s what I aim for. I’m no professional; I express my reactions to the films I watch.

      Regarding Sullivan’s Travels, “magical marvel” hits the nail on the head. Thank you for reading! 🙂

  3. I’m looking forward to the day when you post a movie you hate!!! I remember some great moaning and groaning over bad movies during school last year. Please post some more!!! Your blog is amazing!!!

  4. […] remarkable theme on a fairly rare (as in, not heard too often nowadays; just making sure Harper understands the context) string instrument called a zither. To me, it’s beyond words. You […]


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