SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (1941)

  • Director: Preston Sturges
  • Writer: Preston Sturges
  • Starring: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall, Byron Foulger, Margaret Hayes, Jane Buckingham, Robert Greig, and Eric Blore
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 list (#61)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel, buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Sullivan’s Travels feels to me a bit like one of those movies that Hollywood people love because it’s about making movies, sort of anyway, and that’s why they can relate to it. It has often been said that there’s nothing Hollywood loves more, in terms of awards and other praise, than movies about making movies. In this case, however, that is not a comment at all about the quality of Sullivan’s Travels itself, a very interesting movie that feels like it might have been too smart for the room in 1941. At the time, it was considered by critics (and by box office numbers) the least successful of four (4!) comedies written and directed that year alone by Preston Sturges. For maybe half the movie I thought, well, this is pretty fun but I wouldn’t put it on a list of “great movies.” Then the second half just kept getting weirder and weirder and I liked the movie more and more. 

I realized, eventually, that Sturges reminds me more than anything of, not any of his contemporaries that he makes fun of in this movie, like Capra or Lubitsch, but of the Coen Brothers. Like them, his movies have a quirkiness of both character and style. At one point in this movie there’s a seven minute silent sequence, for no other reason than Sturges seemed to think it was the most interesting way to tell that story. He loves to cut away to other, “side” characters while our leads are talking, who have looks on their faces like “what is wrong with these weirdos?” They are not shots you’ll see in most movies. I came to this realization about the Coens completely independent of a separate realization, which is that their 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou both takes its name from, and contains frequent homages to, this movie. It shares its name with the fictional book Joel McCrea’s discontent comedy director, John Sullivan, wants to make into a “serious movie about the human condition.” Perhaps it is the movie Sullivan envisioned, made real.

Sullivan is a director of popular comedies and musicals with names like “Ants In Your Pants of 1939” and “Hey-Hey in the Hay Loft.” It has been suggested he is playing a version of Sturges himself, but perhaps it is more accurate that he is Sturges’ warning to his fellow Hollywood directors. Depressed at the state of the world (the fact that there’s a war going on in Europe is referenced directly), he insists to various studio directors that he wants to make a serious drama. One wonders whether this is a commentary on current, ultra-dour movies like The Grapes of Wrath, which was the toast of Hollywood just as this movie was being made. In an effort to change his mind, the executives tell Sullivan that, as a rich upper-class man, he doesn’t know anything about suffering. He determines that he is going to leave town as a “hobo,” to learn about the common man.

This plan fails spectacularly, in comical ways. To use modern parlance, Sullivan simply cannot outrun his own privilege, try as he might. He is a surprisingly prescient version of a Hollywood type that’s still around today, a sort of well-meaning-but-out-of-touch liberal. At one point, while trying unsuccessfully to make conversation with two “fellow tramps” while riding on a freight train, he tries to end an awkward pause with “So, what do you think of the labor situation?” Before long, he runs into a struggling Hollywood wannabe played by Veronica Lake, whose image featured on all the posters for this movie. She is charming here but, despite the marketing, it is decidedly not “her” movie.

Now for spoilers, I suppose, in the third act the movie takes a very interesting turn, in which Sullivan (while attempting to hand out five dollar bills to homeless people) is attacked and left on a freight train dressed as a homeless guy with a concussion. Due to circumstances, all his friends and co-workers think he’s dead. Confused, he attacks a railyard worker with a rock and is sentenced to six years on a chain gang. In the movie’s most famous sequence, the chain gang is allowed to watch a “picture show” at a Black church, which turns out to be a Disney cartoon featuring Pluto. Joining in the raucous laughter of his fellow prisoners, Sullivan comes to the realization that comedies are noble, too, because “laughter is all some people have.” Then he announces that he is, in fact, a movie director, and he is let out despite being sentenced to six years in prison for a crime he actually did, and the movie has a happy ending.

If this last sounds like sort of a complaint, it’s not. The movie is very directly winking and nodding, in a jokey way, at the idea that there are different systems of justice for different classes in America, a surprising concept to find in a 1940s comedy. In fact, the US censors wouldn’t allow this movie to be shown overseas at the time it was released, because they thought it portrayed a negative overall image of America (i.e. poor people exist, there are different economic classes, etc.). Sullivan’s Travels sort of gets to have its cake and eat it too: it’s both a comedy and a movie about the social problems Sullivan wants to make a movie about.

This commentary even drew the attention of the NAACP, which wrote a letter to Sturges thanking him for the scene in the Black church. This scene is really striking, with the prisoners coming in, chains clanking, as the congregation sings “Let My People Go.” Apparently Sturges had originally intended to have the scene center around a Chaplin movie, but was unable to get the rights (one way you can tell that this movie is from a very different era is that it was easier to get the rights to Disney cartoons than to a Charlie Chaplin movie).

Sturges was one of the earliest superstar writer-directors, and it is even thought that, in another of his 1941 movies, The Great McGinty, he may have been the first person to get a “written and directed by” credit in a Hollywood movie. He sold the story for that film to Paramount for $1, on the condition he also be allowed to direct. If he is not considered today to the Mount Rushmore of classic Hollywood directors, it is perhaps because his career burned bright but briefly. He made hit after hit from about 1941 through 1949, but his career ended fairly abruptly after this. Though his movies are very much of their time in the sense that many of his biggest hits were what we would today call “Screwball Comedies,” a genre we associate primarily with that era, he also feels somehow ahead of his time. How many 1940s Hollywood directors would have put the emotional climax of their movie in a Black church? The next year, he would direct The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek, of which the one sentence description is something like, “A girl goes to a party for departing soldiers, gets drunk, wakes up pregnant and doesn’t remember who the father is, but it’s a comedy!” He made that movie in 1942.

A word here, also, on Veronica Lake, who during World War II, especially, was a big star all out of proportion to her actual appearances in movies. Her most famous feature was her “peekaboo” hairstyle, in which a few stray locks of her long blonde hair fall down over one eye. It was lifted, decades later, by the designers of Jessica Rabbit. This style is seen briefly in her first scene in this movie and makes a few later appearances, though she spends much of her screen time here “in disguise” as a homeless person while hanging out with Sullivan. Lake’s hairstyle was sort of the “Rachel” of its day, becoming widely popular among everyday women. So much so that, and I am not making this up, the US government stepped in and made Lake change her hair, on the grounds that the style’s popularity was a threat to the war effort. Apparently they were concerned that women wearing their hair hanging over the face did not work while they worked on wartime assembly lines. They even had Lake record a PSA that often played before movies, about “sacrificing glamor in our changed world.” She would later blame this change for the fall of her career, which was just as swift as her rise. She apparently always hated Hollywood, and ended up working as a bartender in New York (where her final marriage was to a fisherman named “Captain Bob”) before dying of alcoholism at age 51. You Must Remember This did a very interesting full episode on her as part of their “Dead Blondes” series a few years ago, if you’re interested it’s very much worth checking out.

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