Cockeyed Caravan: SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (Paramount 1941)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“I can’t get celluloid out of my blood”: W.C.Fields in THE BANK DICK (Universal, 1940)

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W.C. Fields was a one of a kind genius. Fields’ unique brand of comedy was born in vaudeville, polished on Broadway, and reached perfection on the screen. There’s nothing to compare him to, his singular skewed worldview is that distinct. He made his firrst movie 100 years ago, the 1915 silent short POOL SHARKS, and today still has legions of loyal fans. I’ve just finished watching THE BANK DICK, and though it’s impossible to describe the lunacy, I’ll give it a whirl.

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Egbert Souse’ (“accent grave over the E”) is a henpecked husband who spends most of his time at The Black Pussy Café. After taking over directing a movie for the drunken A. Pismo Clam, he inadvertently captures a bank robber and becomes a local hero. Souse’ is given a job as a “bank dick”, working alongside his daughter’s beau, Og Oggilby. A con artist selling shares in a “beefsteak mine” has Souse’ persuade Og to “borrow” five hundred dollars from the bank’s coffers. The bank examiner, J.Pinkerton Snoopington, comes to go over the books, and Souse’ has the Black Pussy’s bartender Joe slip him a “Michael Finn”. It looks like the jig is up until the beefsteak mine strikes a bonanza. A second crook then robs the bank and kidnaps Souse’, leading to a wild car chase. All ends well as Souse’ once again nabs the crook, gets a Hollywood contract, and moves his family into a beautiful mansion, where they can all live happily while Souse’ spends even more time at his favorite watering hole!

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Yep, that’s the story. The rest of THE BANK DICK is filled out with Fields’ trademark craziness: slapstick silliness, sight gags, mumbled asides, and nonsense wordplay (“Don’t be a luddy-duddy. Don’t be a mooncalf. Don’t be a jabbernowl”). Character names like J.Frothingham Waterbury, Mackley Q. Greene, and Mrs. Muckle abound, thanks to screenwriter Mahatma Kane Jeeves (one of Fields’ many aliases). A supporting cast of Una Merkel, Grady Sutton (Og is probably his best role), Franklin Pangborn, and Shemp Howard add to the fun, all under the direction of comedy vet Edward Cline. But it’s W.C. Fields’ show all the way, and The Great One is at his best in THE BANK DICK. Like I said, it’s hard to describe with mere words. The only way to appreciate W.C. Fields is by watching. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll head down to The Black Pussy…..