Sullivan’s Travels, 1941, Paramount Pictures. Starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake. Directed by Preston Sturges. B&W, 90 minutes.
John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is an immensely successful director of lightweight comedies who longs to make films with a social conscience (including one titled, “O Brother, Where Art Thou”). Told his privileged background precludes him from creating anything meaningful, he chooses to hit the road as a tramp.
The studio won’t allow it, however, at least not without their protective services. They send a fully equipped bus, complete with a kitchen and a reporter to record his journey. That arrangement soon falls apart, and Sullivan is left on his own. He encounters trouble soon enough, and his travels land him back in Hollywood.
There he meets an aspiring actress (Veronica Lake) who’s weary of failure and ready to return home. She feels sorry for Sullivan, believing he truly is a tramp, and buys him breakfast. As thanks for her kindness, he returns home to retrieve his car, and the two take off on their own adventure.
Sullivan discovers poverty and despair in the world he sought to understand, and learns a lesson he didn’t expect.
Sullivan’s Travels didn’t fare well upon its initial release, but has since been recognized as a savvy satire on the mores of society. It was produced fast on the heels of director Preston Sturges’ first films as both screenwriter and director, including The Great McGinty and The Lady Eve, and audiences expected more of the same. Its tone and story line are different than those, and the film was not well received. Today, however, it is listed by many as one of Sturges’ finest films.
It is first and foremost a commentary on film making of the time. Quips related to the craft abound, as do the various modes of genres Sturges used throughout. Interestingly, although the main character of the film decries lightweight comedies, that is what Sturges was best known for (although they may not be as forgettable as “Ants in Your Pants of 1939,” one of the fictional films John Sullivan created as a director.)
Sturges received a notable letter from the NAACP about his portrayal of blacks in one scene, in which Sullivan and other prisoners join a local congregation to watch some comedies. In the letter, the NAACP thanks him for avoiding the usual “menial or comic roles” for blacks common to movies of that era. It should be noted that earlier in the film just such a comic role is played by a black actor.
An interesting blend of the desperate and the comic elements of life, showing both the downtrodden and the privileged in their element, Sullivan’s Travels is at times terrifically funny, while at other times heartbreaking. It is a movie with which all film buffs should be familiar, one that can be studied and critiqued endlessly with its rich expanse of material for such.