Sullivan's Travels

March 3, 2012 3:51 PM
12 Comments
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In 1941, the same extraordinary vintage year that saw the release of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York and Ball of Fire, John Huston’s first film, The Maltese Falcon, Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra and The Strawberry Blonde, among other memorable films, came the third and fourth brilliant comedies in a row from America’s first writer-director of the sound era, the incomparable Preston Sturges.  Early that year, there was Sturges’ scintillating romantic farce with Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck, The Lady Eve; and right at the end, an utterly unique achievement—light, even slapstick, comedy that veers into heavy drama—about a pampered hit-making Hollywood movie director who decides to find out what life is really like out there and does, with a fateful vengeance in Sullivan’s Travels (available on DVD).

Superbly stoic and deadpan Joel McCrea plays Sullivan -- a mega-box office winner with forgettable items like Ants in Your Pants and Hey Hey in the Hayloft -- who gets his studio to buy for him a deadly serious heavily social-conscious novel titled O Brother, Where Art Thou (not to be confused with the Coen Bros. picture, an inside tip of the hat to Sturges) so that he can adapt it into a picture of substance, weight and stature. “But with a little sex in it,” hopes his dubious studio head.  Before Sullivan can embark on such a meaningful project, however, he feels that first he must rough it, go down to Skid Row with no money in his pockets, see how the less fortunate live, where the homeless hang out.

For a while Sully (as his associates call him) is joined on his misbegotten adventure by an aspiring young actress he’s run into, played with a sexy, savvy kind of candor by Veronica Lake in her very best film role.  Unfortunately for Sully, life intrudes in a deeply ugly way and pretty soon he finds himself whacked on the head (causing amnesia for some time) and eventually part of a terrible Southern chain gang with a mercilessly brutal warden.  In this miserable circumstance, he comes to learn his biggest lesson about life: that being able to make people laugh is a great and precious gift which should be treasured because, “Laughter,” as Sully says at the end, “may not be much, but it’s all some people have in this cockeyed caravan.  Boy!”

The film’s satirical thrusts at Hollywood celebrity, unreality and pretentiousness are still timely as ever, the pace is breakneck and all the performances absolutely topnotch.  How could any movie in which the two leads sit at a soda fountain and discuss Ernst Lubitsch be anything but sublime?  Sullivan’s Travels was Sturges’ way of saying to the comedy makers that theirs was the most important work, a sardonic nudge to Frank Capra and the Academy to state that for a troubled public, social-minded seriousness can never match solid healthy laughter.

For more of my thoughts on Preston Sturges, see Hail the Conquering Hero in Picture of the Week 11/30/11; and see Preston Sturges in Special Links 6/8/11.

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12 Comments

  • Mark J. McPherson | March 14, 2012 12:20 AMReply

    Jesse, no disrespect to your effort intended. Sturges, being writer and director was in a then unique position to bring the script properly to life. One of the things I've read about Sturges was that it was his frustration over Mitchell Leisen's direction of Sturges' script for 1937's "Easy Living" that led him to become the writer and director of his latter films. If I'm recalling correctly, Sturges felt that some of the edge and sharpness was dulled by Leisen's sentimental touches. I happen to love "Easy Living", particularly the raucous signature Sturges elements. If there is more of the traditional Hollywood love story engrafted onto his script, it goes down easy, as Ray Midland never again as funny and Jean Arthur never more lovely.

    My long-winded point is that it's a difficult trick to pull off and the execution from script to screen is particularly dicey with darker comedies. I haven't read your search script (though I'd be happy to) but I had in mind "comedies" like "The Cable Guy" which had a good cast and a dependable premise but wore out its welcome through a wrong-headed desire to disturb. It was no fun, nonsense. Too many movies edge toward cheap outrage and humiliation instead of following their characters' comic fate. It's quite a lot of hard work to plot a comedy through to an internally consistent and consistently funny conclusion. There are far more great gag writers than there are great comic writers. Its hard enough to write and direct and act funny at all. You can sometimes feel the point in films where the initial comic premise and character quirks begin to lose steam And the director begin to flail around looking for away home. But you are right. Even Sturges didn't gain such command without taking chances and risks.

  • Jesse L | March 17, 2012 4:21 PM

    I agree with you Mark. It's a tough trick to pull off. The examples you state are good ones. That's why I would value your opinion on my script. Here is my email address jesse@jlopen.com. Send me your email address and I'll email you the script. If you have the chance to read it and would make a few comments I would greatly appreciate it.

  • Jesse L | March 12, 2012 5:27 PMReply

    Piquent observations Mark. "Best left to the masters" I disagree with though. How is one to broaden one's writing scope or skills if one doesn't take some chances (I know this is anathema to Hollywood execs)? I'd wish you'd read my script. I'd be curious to hear your feedback on it.

  • Mark J. McPherson | March 12, 2012 2:05 PMReply

    I've always thought that the reason Sturges' was able to pull off the tonal shift was the doubling and trebling of the story -- a movie about someone trying to make a movie, in which the director wants to move away from light fluff to heavy, dark social issues. And Sturges is merciless in cutting everyone up about it, even John L. Sullivan for his pretension and presumption and certainly the studio heads who humor Sullivan, provided they get what they need ("But with a little sex in it."). And then after ridiculing the whole concept Sturges proceeds to surprise by adding dramatic elements to the following farcical lark of Sullivan's exploratory decent into "gritty realism". Sullivan gets rather more than he bargained for, and I remember being disoriented and ill-at-ease the first time I saw "Sullivan's Travels", as the repartee and pratfalls give way to something John Garfield might have more comfortably played. Sturges was such a master stylist, of course, that you can't help but be brought along and discomfort soon gave way to curiosity as to whether and how he'd pull it off. Sturges was virtuoistic in making the tonal shift, and you're left realizing that you need to watch all of his films again to see and appreciate that virtuosity beneath all the comedy.

    And then the whole things comes back on itself, Sullivan has a rescue and an epiphany about the meaning of life and laughter and all that ("There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that's all some people have? It isn't much ... but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.") All these years later and I'm still tickled to ponder where, if anywhere, Sturges was being "serious" in "Sullivan'Travelses". Its easy to see the film's finale as his bottom line, but who knows where that joke ends?

    Capra usually more self-consciously and ploddingly moved from light-to-dark. "It's A Wonderful Life" is an obvious example, but the scene where George and Mary are on the phone together with Sam that suddenly and almost violently morphs intmarriageaige proposal is a rapid-fdemonstrationtion of the dramatic impact of tonal shifts. Its best left to the masters, though, as any number of "darkly edgy" recent, nasty and deeply unfunny comedies show.

  • Jesse L | March 10, 2012 4:43 PMReply

    Sullivan's Travels has long been one of my favorite films in Sturges' ouvre. I can't believe I just typed the word "ouvre." I hope I spelled it correctly. Anyway, the shift in tone is important to this film. Recently, I submitted a screenplay of mine to a noted screenplay competition. I purchased the "feedback" as well. Whoever read the script (it is a rom-com) noted that it has a shift in tone that they found "jarring." BUT I MEANT IT TO BE THAT WAY! The whole story is about the difference between fantasy and reality. They felt I should keep it light and funny all the way through. Obviously, they've never seen Sullivan's Travels. Sometimes a shift in tone is part of the story. I notice that when Goodfellas shifts tone halfway through, critics hailed this as genius. I love Marty Scorcese but he wasn't the first one to do this.

  • Mark J. McPherson | March 7, 2012 3:25 PMReply

    However the name is spelled, I can't help but laugh every time I think of McCrea learning, in "The Palm Beach Story", that his wife has cooked up the alias of "Captain McGlew" for him! McCrea had this marvelous, deadpan dignity about him, that served him so well in westerns ("Ride the High Country" was a high point) but which you wouldn't necessarily expect would work comically. But it did!

  • Blake Lucas | March 6, 2012 2:25 AMReply

    "How could any movie in which the two leads sit at a soda fountain and discuss Ernst Lubitsch be anything but sublime? "

    My favorite line read on the internet all week, with a wit so appropriate to SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS.

    I don't agree with Fungo, that is to say I do agree very much about Joel McCrea's talents but not that McCrea is underappreciated. It may have long been true but not anymore. You should see the reaction to his being TCM's Star of the Month in May on some of the other blogs--where SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS leads off.

    McCrea did it all well--and there are in truth many movies that show it. I believe I can state with some authority that he is justly revered by fans of Westerns, in which he specialized postwar, as one of the genre's greatest and most convincing actors.

  • Brad Lanfeld | March 5, 2012 1:03 PMReply

    Regarding the lawsuit against Sundance (2012 Abbinante vs. Sundance H12S00037)
    The lawsuit alleges that Sundance is committing fraud by not returning submission fees to filmmakers whos films were not screened and evaluated by Sundance.
    "Because Sundance has prior knowledge of the unmanageable volume of films received (11,700 films for the 2012 festival) and did not return fees to filmmakers whos films were not screened and evaluated, Sundance is guilty of fraud." quoted by Darryl Abbinante and continued to state "It's simply not humanly possible for any committee to screen and evaluate 11,700 films." Sadly, the judge ruled in favor of Sundance stating "Sundance is not legally required to screen and watch every film submission in it's entirety." The judge also stated
    "if you can not prove Sundance is not watching at least 30 seconds of each and every film submitted, then you can not prove fraud."
    So the mystery behind Sundance has been discovered. Sundance is not liable to watch every film submission from start to finish and evaluate them. This is information that would've been very useful to the over 11,700 filmmakers prior to them submitting their films and submissions fees to Sundance for the 2012 festival, bringing Sundance an additional income revenue of $500,000 to $625,000 for the 2012 season.
    Sundance is a well polished money making machine. They have found loop hole in the system and are exploiting filmmakers by the tens of thousands. I was one of them. I feel sorry for next year when (estimated) 13,500 filmmakers will blindly send in their films and submissions fees chasing a dream that no longer exists.
    Kudos to Sundance and their staff for effectively creating a business that thru the years grows larger every year, despite the recession, by continuing to dangle the carrot of success in front of every filmmaker's face with promises of discovery and a film sale. Pure Genius.
    Darryl Abbinante
    Indy Filmmaker
    Over 7000 film festivals require filmmakers to submit their film to 'without a box'.
    'Without a box' is owned by another business (IMDb), which is in-turn owned by an even larger corporation (Amazon.com).

    Filmmaker Magazine, Indiewire, Film Threat, and most all other Independent Film News sources are all being bought out, controlled and monopolized by one big corporate entity, there soul existence is to sell you a "dream" not to report truth or anything against Sundance, this is where most of their money comes from, advertising, film schools, and film festivals.

    Sundance does not in fact watch the 12,000 film submissions, they have gone 'on record' to admit that watching 15 seconds or more of your film, is in fact legally within their obligations.

    Sundance has made many millions, of dollars off of film submissions in over 25 years of existence.

    Filmmaker Magazine, Indiewire, or Film Threat does not and will not report this, they cant.

    The filmmakers do NOT own their films that they submitted anymore.

    Did you know you "gave up that right" when you signed or clicked the agreement?

    You didn't read.
    Use Withoutabox (WAB) = Surrender Content Rights
    Withoutabox's Terms of Service agreement (by signing into your account you are agreeing)

    Under Item 13 it states that while Withoutabox (WAB) 'does not acquire any right or ownership' of your work when you use their service YOU AGREE TO GRANT Withoutabox IRREVOCABLE, non-exclusive, ROYALTY-FREE, perpetual and fully sublicensable right to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, create derivative works from , distribute and display ANY MATERIAL YOU SUBMIT TO WITHOUTABOX INCLUDING CONTENT throughout the world IN ANY MEDIA. You further grant WAB and their sublicensees the right to use the name you submit in connection with the material.

    Did you know that? In short, the moment you log onto WAB you give them permission FOREVER to sell your film anywhere in the world. They keep all money earned from your film (and anything else you upload or add to their site).

    WAB is stealing all the content they can from naive and vulnerable filmmakers.

    In years to come your film will be free to be uploaded, or small fees required to watch it, and you won't receive a dime, and who would want to pay for your film now?

    Sundance Film Festival has cleared their reputation, Adam Montgomery has cleared Sundance's reputation, as also John Cooper. The festival has no legal obligation to watch your film.
    This means that Sundance Film Festival is NOT A SCAM, IS NOT FRAUDULENT, AND IS NOT CORRUPT, all postings are therefore removed, the film Scam Fest is irrelevant and will not be eidted or completed, because our "burden of proof is irrelevant, all videos, all protest videos against Sundance have been removed

    We encourage all filmmakers to keep submitting their films.

  • fung0 | March 5, 2012 12:54 AMReply

    Sturges was obviously a brilliant writer and director, and in Sullivan's Travels he truly outdid himself. This film is so good, it's hard to watch - like staring into a searchlight. But for me the film is also important as one of the few that properly highlights the abilities of Joel McCrea - and one of even fewer that gets much circulation today.

    For some reason, McCrea doesn't seem to be as well-remembered as other leading men of the period. But he has the same self-deprecating likability as Cary Grant or Spencer Tracy, and, as demonstrated in this film, as much ability to convey depth of emotion as the best of his contemporaries. Thinking about Sullivan's Travels, I'm hard pressed to imagine any actor who could have done what McCrea did with the part, veering effortlessly from comedy to pathos and back again.

    There will never be a shortage of film buffs to sing the praises of Preston Sturges. But I wish there were more who'd keep alive the memory of Joel McCrea, a guy who always seemed able to make a weak movie watchable, and a good movie a classic.

  • PB | March 4, 2012 2:29 AMReply

    You're right, Mark, it's "cockeyed" not "crazy". We'll fix it shortly. And thanks for quoting that
    brilliant speech about poverty; it's so powerful. Apt phrase, yours: "genital comedies"...

  • Mark J. McPherson | March 3, 2012 10:31 PMReply

    The version I have and love so well has it as a "cockeyed" as contrasted with a "crazy" caravan. But thanks so much for returning to peak Sturges. 70 years on and its still more stylish, knowing and sharp than all the infantile, genital comedies in the last 2 decades put together.

    There's a moment of brilliant and perceptive social commentary between John L and his butler, played by the great Robert Greig:
    Burrows: Good morning, sir.
    Burrows: I don't like it at all, sir. Fancy dress, I take it?
    John L. Sullivan: What's the matter with it?
    Burrows: I have never been sympathetic to the caricaturing of the poor and needy, sir.
    John L. Sullivan: Who's caricaturing?
    John L. Sullivan: I'm going out on the road to find out what it's like to be poor and needy and then I'm going to make a picture about it.
    Burrows: If you'll permit me to say so, sir, the subject is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.
    John L. Sullivan: But I'm doing it for the poor. Don't you understand?
    Burrows: I doubt if they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy, I believe quite properly, sir. Also, such excursions can be extremely dangerous, sir. I worked for a gentleman once who likewise, with two friends, accoutered themselves as you have, sir, and then went out for a lark. They have not been heard from since.

    Burrows: You see, sir, rich people and theorists - who are usually rich people - think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches - as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn't, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned.

  • Sky | March 3, 2012 7:13 PMReply

    Peter
    this is so important that you share all your knowledge... i am so grateful

    Sky

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