Tuesday, February 16

Good 40s Films: Sullivan's Travels

1941 Comedy Drama
From Paramount Pictures
Directed by Preston Sturges

Joel McCrea
Veronica Lake
William Demarest
Robert Warwick
Porter Hall
Margaret Hayes
Franklin Pangborn

This artful, screwball comedy dipped in delicious sentimentality and undercut with a streak of hard-boiled cynicism is what Paramount wonder-boy director Preston Sturges brought to a dozen films or so before he vanished from Tinseltown for good.  He was a brilliant screenwriter who added directing to his resume and for awhile he could do no wrong.

The Great McGinty, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, The Palm Beach Story and later Unfaithfully Yours at Fox have his signature embossed in large script.  Some of his films did not enjoy the success that was hoped for at the time, perhaps, but all have grown in stature in  later years.  In 1941 he made The Lady Eve with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda and also this film, Sullivan's TravelsEve may be his finest comedy but I regard Sullivan's Travels as the best film he ever made.

Sturges specialized in sarcastic humor and needed the just-right actors to deliver it.  Additionally, and a real credit to the images the man must have had running through that brain, he was a master at slapstick comedy.  There seems to be a little Keystone Cops antics in just about everything he did, perhaps just a single scene (as in this film), but it's there. 

Being the lover of movies about Hollywood that I am, here is another reason for giving this film some honorable mention.  Sullivan could rightly be branded a satire of Hollywood make-believe.  On the fun side, Sturges serves up a soufflĂ© on Hollywood excess, publicity stunts, money-grubbing and messages in films.  The great rub, with all his poking fun, is this is still a message movie and the message certainly is that there is little in life that is more important that laughter.

In this vein, let's consider a couple of interesting points.  Within the film, it was the depression era and there was not much to laugh about.  Then there is the consideration of the time this film was released, December, 1941, another depressing time for Americans.

This Sturges comedy has some serious drama.  In some ways, perhaps, it seems out of place in a film in which one has spent a great deal of time laughing.  But to deliver his message of the importance of laughter, he lays out why it is needed.  The second half gets pretty dark for our hero but, of course, like all Sturges' works, it ends well.

That hero is John L. Sullivan, a rich but earnest young movie director.  He tells his studio bosses that he is tired of churning out lightweight films, that he wants to make something that is socially significant, a commentary on the conditions of the day.  He wants to direct something that tells of the plight of the common man.  He puffs up when he offers that he wants to hold a mirror up to life and paint a canvass on the suffering of humanity. 

His bosses are appalled.  They want him to continue as is or maybe do a musical or anything with a little sex in it.  Of course, like all big bosses, they really just want to make money; the wishes of the loyal employee aren't to be given much consideration.

Sully tells them people are eating out of garbage cans and he wants to direct something that shows their plight.  The bosses ask him, perhaps accuse him of not knowing anything about such matters.  They delight in pointing out that he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, went to boarding school, never wanted for anything.  Wouldn't he be a peculiar choice for directing a movie about garbage can meals?

So John L. Sullivan decides he is going to find out.  He's going out into the world after he has the wardrobe department fix him up with some hobo clothes.  He's taking along a few coins only.  He'll live as the great unwashed and disenfranchised live and he's coming back only after he knows what the trouble is and what it's like to be poor.

His snobby butler tells him that subject is not an interesting one because the poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.  Sully counters he's doing it all for the poor but the butler warns that they will hate the intrusion of their privacy and cautions his boss that it will be dangerous.

Nevertheless, off he goes.  He's not that far when he gets a ride from a young kid and at the same time discovers a studio bus/motorhome is following them, full of publicity people... those studio bosses don't want to miss an opportunity.  What ensues is that Keystone Cops-like car chase scene that had me laughing myself silly.  Ultimately he hitches a ride in a truck and falls asleep in the back.  When he's told he needs to get out, he annoyingly finds himself back in Hollywood.

Sauntering into a roadside diner, he meets The Girl... the only name she's given.  This scene is beautifully written, pure Sturges, and superbly acted by Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea.  Take a peek:

After a few mishaps she discovers his true identity and it's fairly certain the two have begun to care about one another.  She determines that she will join him on the road.  Sturges continues the amusing repartee between the pair as they travel in boxcars, visit encampments of the poor who have no other way to live and glimpse into the sad lives of those they come across. 

As the second half of the film begins they are back at his home where he is recovering from a cold.  He realizes how much he has learned and decides to go back on the road by himself and anonymously give money to those living on the streets.  Someone watches him, realizes how much money he must have on him and clubs him on the head, steals his shoes and shoves him unconscious into a boxcar. 

He not only winds up in a brutal prison camp but the press declares that he has been killed. He confesses to his own murder, realizing he will have his picture in the newspaper and will be set free.  He returns home to The Girl, who has gotten her wish to become a movie star.  He will proceed with a new movie that will bring laughter to those sorely in need of it and everyone lives happily ever after.

I have become so accustomed to seeing Joel McCrea in westerns that I sometimes forget that he did other types of roles and did them so well.  Sturges said that he wrote the role specifically with the actor in mind.  It's a wonderful performance.

Equally wonderful is Veronica Lake who was pregnant at the time and disguised it pretty well.  I say this is her best role.  As I said in the piece I wrote on her a while back, she and McCrea did not get along at all.  It's so hard to believe when you watch them interact but it points out how good actors can really be.   Paramount was so impressed with their pairing that they wanted to team them in another project but McCrea declined saying life's too short for two films with Veronica Lake.  She also battled with Sturges who would never use her in another film.

Also featured is a delightful supporting cast, character actors whose faces one would certainly recognize and several of whom were staples in Sturges' films.

For budding film students who may want to get a handle on films of the 1940s, this one is highly recommended as is all the work of Preston Sturges.  And if you're not going to be budding and are not aware of this one, try to catch it.  It's well worth 90 minutes.

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Movie review


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