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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The Court Jester (1955)

The perfect example of Kaye's comic versatility.

“King of jesters and jester to the king.”

Due to limited time,¬†limited brainpower, and the aggravating unreliability of modern technology, this week’s post will be somewhat shorter than usual. *all four of SC’s regular readers emit a sharp gasp*

Are you ready to laugh? You’d better be. The Court Jester is perhaps the perfect introduction to comedy legend Danny Kaye. To give you an idea of how funny he really was, listen to this: he was Bob Hope’s favorite comedian, he received a Special Tony Award for heading a variety bill at the Palace Theatre, and he once conducted the Philharmonic Orchestra at New York’s Carnegie Hall with his feet. That’s what I call skill.

Anyway, a movie like this is indeed a rare find. It blends romance, adventure, and superb comedy. Wit, thy name is Kaye! ¬†And Fine. And Frank. And Panama. And–sorry.

But seriously, The Court Jester is, quite simply, whimsy. It’s pure merriment. It’s one of those movies from which you walk away saying, “I didn’t learn a thing. But I had fun.” And, really, that’s what comedy is all about. Satire is great, I’ll admit. But, overall, I enjoy innocent and/or senseless humor much more than humor that makes a statement.

I contradict myself a lot, don’t I? Well, I apologize. But seriously, you’re going to have to get used to it.

There are some classic routines in this film, including “Vessel with the pestle…”, “The Maladjusted Jester” (a tongue-twisting song written by Kaye’s wife, Sylvia Fine), and the oft-repeated line, “Get it?” “Got it.” “Good.” Dana Carvey did NOT create that line. Carvey may be The Master of Disguise, but the title of Master of Comedy belongs to Danny Kaye.

(Wasn’t that a clever, bitingly sarcastic statement? I thought so.)

Here’s my professional suggestion: Make yourself comfortable. Watch this movie. Eat chocolate. That’s my technique, and it hasn’t failed me yet.

Synopsis

The throne of rightful king of England, the small babe with the purple pimpernel birthmark, has been usurped by the evil King Roderick. Only the Black Fox can restore the true king to the throne. The task falls to Hawkins (Kaye), the gentlest (and perhaps most clueless) member of the Fox’s band. The Fox’s lieutenant, Maid Jean (Johns), guards Hawkins and the babe while they travel, but when they meet the King’s new jester on the road, they decide to initiate a daring plan for Hawkins to replace him, become an intimate at the court, and steal the key. So, humble, bumbling Hawkins becomes Giacomo: the king of jesters and jester to the king.

Information

Directed by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama;

Written by Melvin Frank (screenplay) and Norman Panama (screenplay);

Starring Danny Kaye as Hubert Hawkins, Glynis Johns as Maid Jean, Angela Lansbury as Princess Gwendolyn, and Basil Rathbone (who is awesome, by the way; one of my favorite dramatic actors) as Sir Ravenhurst;

Produced by Melvin Frank (producer), Norman Panama (producer), Sylvia Fine (executive producer), and Danny Kaye (executive producer);

Music by Vic Schoen, Walter Scharf (uncredited), Sylvia Fine (songs);

Facts

Apparently Danny Kaye’s legs (in tights) were not satisfactory to the film’s producers, so they made him wear “leg falsies” to improve the shape of his legs. I, of course, would not need any such assistance.

Basil Rathbone was, in real life, a world-class fencer. Thanks to his efforts, the scene was filmed without injury. Supposedly, he later admitted that several times he was almost run through with Kaye’s sword. However…

…It’s also been said that Kaye’s sword movements were too fast for poor Basil, who, though still in great shape, was 63 at the time. Also supposedly, the fight choreographer dressed up as Rathbone’s character and was filmed from behind for the fast sections.

Oh, and if this post is completely incomprehensible, I have an excuse. I’ve been preparing for a big debate tournament all week, and I’ve just returned from the actual event. So, in conclusion, I apologize if the post is cryptic. It’s no fault of my own.

-luke