I’m no expert on Preston Sturges, having seen only two of his films, but after viewing SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS I now have a craving to see them all! This swift (and Swiftian) satire on Hollywood stars Joel McCrea as a successful slapstick comedy director yearning to make important, socially conscious films who gets more than he bargained for when he hits the road to discover what human misery and suffering is all about.
John L. “Sully” Sullivan sets his studio bosses on their collective ear when he tells them he wants to film an adaptation of ” O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a serious novel by ‘Sinclair Beckstein’. The head honcho balks, wanting Sully to do another comedy, but Sully’s not dissuaded, deciding to see what life among the downtrodden is first-hand. He dresses in rags and sets out on his quest, followed by a gaggle of PR flacks in a bus. Somehow he keeps winding up back in Hollywood, where he meets a girl (her name is never given) in a diner, a disillusioned young actress about to leave Tinseltown behind.
After the pair get arrested for stealing a car, which is actually his in the first place, Sullivan reveals his true identity to her, taking The Girl to his palatial estate. She’s angry at first, having thought him a real hobo, but when he’s determined to continue his odyssey she becomes equally determined to join him. From there they hop a freight train and live among the homeless souls, dining in soup kitchens and sleeping in a crowded shelter, learning how the poor and desperate souls live. Having gathered enough material, the director decides to hand out $1000 in fives to the street people in gratitude.
Then the film takes a turn to the dramatic, as Sully gets rolled by the same bum who previously stole his shoes, and dragged onto a train leaving the station. The unfortunate crook drops the ill-gotten dough and is run over by an oncoming locomotive. The studio execs believe the dead man is Sully, who wakes up concussed and confused, charged with trespass and atrocious assault, winding up in a prison work camp run by a brutal overseer who doesn’t take any guff.
Everything turns out okay in the end, as Sullivan finds a way to be freed and discovers making comedies isn’t so bad after all. Joel McCrea is flawless as the idealistic, earnest director, whose journey of self-discovery leads him to this conclusion: “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”. Sturges punctures the pretentiousness of Hollywood elitists who think they can save the world, suggesting that maybe what the world needs more of is a good, hearty laugh. The fact remains while comedies do big box-office, they get very little love come Oscar time. The great screen comics of their respective eras have rarely been rewarded for their efforts, usually settling for a lifetime achievement award after they’re way past their prime, while “relevant” dramas get all the accolades. Myself, I’d rather be entertained than preached at.
Veronica Lake shines as The Girl, showing a flair for comedy as the struggling starlet. She’s the perfect match for McCrea, with comic timing that’s just right. Tons of Familiar Faces parade on the screen, like William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall , Byron Foulger , Eric Blore, Torbin Meyer, Esther Howard , Almira Sessions, Frank Moran, Chester Conklin, and Dewey Robinson, many of whom appeared in subsequent Sturges films as a sort of stock company. A shout-out goes to Jess Lee Brooks as a black preacher who allows the prisoners to attend his church for a movie, leading the congregation in a stirring rendition of ‘Go Down, Moses” (that’s Madame Sul-Te-Wan at the organ). Ray Milland also appears in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo.
SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS is social commentary disguised as screwball comedy, or maybe vice versa. Its rapid-fire dialog, great sight gags, and satirical skewering of Hollywood makes it a must-see for film fans. It carries a timeless message, and that is, as Donald O’Connor would say, “Make Em Laugh”! I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for more Preston Sturges films in the future, because we all need to stop and have a good laugh these days.