Sullivan's Travels: Review
Director Preston Sturges is regarded as one of the most ingenious comedic filmmakers ever to emerge from the ranks of screenwriting at the height of the Studio System. Noted for his zany and far-fetched story lines, Sullivan’s Travels is considered to be his darkest and most socially conscious production, and yet it remains one of his funniest.
Handsome Joel McCrea was at the height of his popularity when he played the droll and earnest John L. Sullivan, a successful, yet naive director of light-hearted movies. After his latest smash hit, Sullivan decides he wants to make a film about the troubles of the downtrodden poor, entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou? (the source for the title of Joel and Ethan Coen’s film of 2000). Unswayed by the urgings of the studio’s producers, the sincere young artist is determined to make a film that has a message and some meaning.
So, in order to understand his subject best, he sets off in tramp's clothing with a single dime in his pocket in order to experience poverty firsthand. Of course, what he really gets is a good kick in his smug pants and a strong dose of reality. Many mishaps and studio meddling interfere with Sullivan being able to experience the true life of a vagabond. It’s not until he shakes the protection of Hollywood and his wannabe girlfriend (played by an adorable Veronica Lake in what I think is her best role) that he gets an authentic taste of life for the down and out. In fact, his experiment becomes all too real. And it is not until his darkest hour that Sullivan is reminded why making people laugh is just as important as any message.
I’m not one to give away the details of a movie, but I will tell you that The American Film Institute has hailed Sullivan’s Travels as the 61st Greatest Movie of All Time, and for good reason. Sullivan’s Travels actually achieves the difficult goal of being funny while delivering a message, which is never an easy trick, regardless of what era you’re working in. In this case, you have an extremely gifted director and Academy Award winning screenwriter (Sturges) working from his own script with a cast that was born to portray the characters he crafted for them.
McCrea was never deemed a great actor, although he was considered very capable at what he did best – playing Joel McCrea. He was very tall (6’, 3”), very good-looking, and strongly resembled Gary Cooper. Before Sullivan’s Travels he starred in many popular films of the early 1940s, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (another great role for McCrea). Veronica Lake (This Gun for Hire, I Married a Witch), likewise, was never known for her craft, but rather her unique beauty. This film came just at the beginning of her immensely (although brief) popularity. This was the big role that propelled her into stardom and a five-year run of public adoration as the girl with the peek-a-boo hair.
However, in the hands of director Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve, Hail the Conquering Hero), the two often underrated talents reached the height of their abilities and provided some of the most wonderfully dry humor ever captured on screen. Sullivan may never have created the film to satisfy both himself and the audience, but there’s no doubt Preston Sturges did, time and time again - most notably with Sullivan’s Travels.