Blog Directory CineVerse: The problems that confront the average man--but with a little sex

The problems that confront the average man--but with a little sex

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Sullivan's Travels, released in 1941 and helmed by Preston Sturges—the first screenwriter to successfully transition to Hollywood director and get his name above the title to boot—tells the tale of John L. Sullivan, a prosperous Hollywood director portrayed by Joel McCrea. Sullivan fed up with making frivolous, disposable entertainment, is driven by a desire to create a meaningful cinematic portrayal of societal struggles, so he decides to rough it as a hobo and venture into the realm of poverty and hardship firsthand. Before long, he befriends a blonde with Hollywood starlet dreams (Veronica Lake), and Sullivan learns the value of humility, empathy, and the transformative power of humor.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this movie, conducted last week, click here.

Sullivan's Travels cleverly critiques Hollywood's inclination toward producing shallow, diversionary content, urging reflection on the ethical responsibilities of artists and filmmakers. The titular character’s transition from opulence to destitution serves as a lens through which the film explores themes of class division and the hardships endured by the marginalized, especially during the Great Depression. It remains a seminal work—possibly Sturges’ best—and an early example of a “meta” film that has left an indelible mark on cinema.

Notably, this movie features striking changes in tone, from action picture to farce/parody to slapstick comedy to social message movie to romance to dark drama. The film’s visual palette also changes tone accordingly, from brightly lit/low contrast standard Hollywood lighting to chiaroscuro high contrast lighting indicative of film noir and horror.

While it’s arguably unclassifiable in any particular category, it’s probably best remembered as a semi-screwball comedy; it features a plethora of comic movie devices, including a portrait that alters its expression, sped-up car chases, pratfalls into swimming pools, and other visual gags.

Although there is a shameful scene in which a Black cook is the butt of a terribly racist joke, it depicts later African American characters with a level of respect and dignity that was uncommon for this period in cinema history.

Curiously, the “girl” (played wonderfully by Lake) is never given a name, keeping her an enigma. Sullivan and his sexy sidekick are also shown sleeping next to each other in the flophouse and boxcar; earlier, we see her sitting on Sullivan’s bed as he lies in it. This flouts the strict censorship of the era that dictated separate sleeping quarters for lovers. Recall, too, how the director and his producers talk explicitly about the box-office value of sex appeal, a rarity for a 1941 picture.

Consider how the film showcases quirky and creative choices by Sturges: extended montages with no dialogue tell a lot of the story; there’s an unexpected musical number a la the black gospel choir; and the first conversation with the studio suits is one long, continuous 4-minute shot.

The film offers a warts-and-all, no-pulled-punches look at the impoverished and destitute, which makes it a bit bleak and eye-opening, especially for a 1941 comedy. In fact, it’s one of the best-known Hollywood feature films that depicts the harsh reality of the Great Depression and its aftermath. Yet, despite the occasional somber tone, Sturges also irreverently pokes fun at virtually everyone and everything in “Sullivan’s Travels”—from the shyster producers and their obsequious underlings to the overly ambitious director—everyone except the poor, homeless, and imprisoned, who are depicted as sympathetic.

Sullivan’s Travels is a work replete with thematic ruminations. It explores the push and pull between commerce vs. art and popular entertainment vs. creative works intended to have deeper significance. It reminds us of the universal power of laughter, which can unite people of any background and uplift even the most downtrodden. It’s a treatise on the wide gap between the haves and the have-nots in America, as well as the artificiality and superficiality of the movie industry and Hollywood. And—fittingly for Sturges, who has been credited as one of the first Hollywood directors to significantly infuse irony in his creations—irony is a theme unto itself in Sullivan’s Travels. Ponder how Sullivan is driven by a social conscience to abandon the calling that made him a success (comedy directing) for socially relevant message pictures and connecting with the common man; this endeavor, however, ends in tragedy: he’s attacked by the kind of down-and-out man he’s trying to help, and he’s later thrown in prison.

What lesson does Sullivan learn? Don’t try to be pretentious or patronizing or adopt the mantle of a social justice warrior; people go to the cinema to be entertained, not necessarily to see real life.

The film also serves as a clever satire of self-important Hollywood types who condescend to the common man and the poor: The fact that Sullivan abandons his “O Brother Where Art Thou” type movie and goes back to formulaic comedies seems to be a subtle criticism of pretentious filmmakers who aspire to make socially conscious message movies, including contemporary directors of this period like Frank Capra and producers such as Daryll Zanuck. Sturges later wrote in his autobiography: “After I saw a couple of pictures put out by some of my fellow comedy directors, which seemed to have abandoned the fun in favor of the message, I wrote Sullivan’s Travels to satisfy an urge to tell them that they were getting a little too deep-dish; to leave the preaching to the preachers.”

It’s possible to interpret Sullivan as an avatar for or representative of Sturges himself, who continued to make comedies that changed in tone and mood as Sullivan’s Travels does.

Confused about the significance of the film’s title? It’s a play on the name of another famous satire of its time, “Gulliver’s Travels,” written by Jonathan Swift, whose main character treks into strange lands populated by odd peoples. Interestingly, John L. Sullivan, the movie protagonist’s name, was also the name of the late popular boxer and heavyweight champion.

Similar works

  • O Brother Where Art Thou, which the Coen brothers conceived as the kind of movie that Sullivan might have created if he went through with it
  • Many Chaplin films, such as Modern Times and The Kid
  • The Big Picture, another film about an ambitious filmmaker who is seduced by big Hollywood dreams and abandons his original vision
  • My Man Godfrey, in its depiction of Depression-era haves/have-nots
  • The Player, in its skewering of vapid and superficial Hollywood
  • The Day of the Locust, yet another biting satire of blood-sucking Hollywood types

Other works by Preston Sturges

  • The Great McGinty
  • The Palm Beach Story
  • The Lady Eve
  • The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
  • Hail the Conquering Hero
  • Christmas in July

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