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.

Strange Bedfellows: THE GLASS KEY (Paramount 1942)

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Anyone who watches television, reads a newspaper, or surfs the Internet today knows the axiom “Politics is a dirty business” is dead on point. The mudslinging and brickbats are being tossed at record rates, and it just keeps escalating. Here at Cracked Rear Viewer, we’re just plain tired of all the nonsense. Ah, for the old days, when politics was much more genteel and civil, right? Wrong! Politics has always been a dirty business, proving another old adage, “There’s nothing new under the sun”. Case in point: the 1942 film THE GLASS KEY.

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The story’s based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, and was filmed once before in 1935 with George Raft, Edward Arnold, and Claire Dodd. In this version, Paramount chose to star their red-hot team of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, fresh off their hit THIS GUN FOR HIRE. Brian Donlevy takes the Arnold role as Paul Madvig, a shady political boss who came up from the streets to become a powerful kingmaker. Madvig throws his support to reform candidate Ralph Henry, mainly because he’s got the hots for Henry’s daughter Janet. Madvig’s second-in-command Ed Beaumont doesn’t trust her, as she’s been making the goo-goo eyes at him.

Henry’s son Taylor is a young wastrel with a gambling habit who’s in deep to gangster Nick Varna. Varna’s backing another candidate, and he and Madvig are at odds (at one point Madvig calls him “a pop-eyed spaghetti bender”). Taylor’s been dating Madvig’s sister Opal, and Ed warns her to steer clear of him. Soon Taylor’s found murdered, and Madvig’s the #1 suspect. The local newspaper (in Varna’s pocket) is splattering Madvig’s name all across the headlines (Aside: I love it when the newsboy screams, “Extry! Extry! Read all about it!”).

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Soon Janet asks for Ed’s help in solving her brother’s murder. Varna sends for Ed and offers him a stake in his gambling joint in exchange for dirt on Madvig. He tells Ed he’s got a sworn affidavit from an eyewitness, but Ed turns the gangster down flat, causing Varna to sic his brutal henchman Jeff on him. Ed’s locked in a room as Jeff continuously beats the shit out of him, trying to “persuade” him. Ed escapes by setting fire to a mattress and lands in the hospital.

Madvig and Janet visit Ed there, and reveal they’re now engaged, though Janet’s still hot for Ed. When he leaves the hospital, Ed goes to the Pine Lake home of publisher Matthews, finding Varna and his hoods there as well. Ed figures it all out, and the publisher commits suicide, leaving a note behind. Ed grabs the note and puts the kibosh on the story. The so-called “witness” is gunned down by Varna’s men, then Madvig astounds Ed by telling him he really did kill Taylor! Madvig’s indicted, and Ed tracks Jeff down at a seedy bar. The hulking brute is drunk, and plans on more fun and games with Ed. Varna arrives, Jeff spills the beans that he killed the witness, Varna pulls a gun, Jeff strangles him, and the real murderer is finally revealed (no, I won’t tell you who it is!). Ed and Janet leave for a new life in New York, with Madvig’s blessings.

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The dense story, a Hammett trademark, is adapted well by screenwriter Joanthan Latimer, no slouch himself in the hardboiled department. Latimer covered the Chicago crime beat during the heyday of Al Capone, then began writing novels featuring tough PI William Crane, three of which were filmed as part of Universal’s “Crime Club” series. Latimer also wrote the scripts for the noir’s NOCTURNE, THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME , and NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES, and over thirty episodes of the TV classic PERRY MASON.

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Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake had an onscreen electricity between them, a red-hot sexual chemistry that wasn’t topped until Bogie & Bacall. Of the seven films they appeared in together, three (THIS GUN FOR HIRE, THE GLASS KEY, THE BLUE DAHLIA) are bona-fide film noir classics. Ladd, who’d kicked around Hollywood for years, became a major star in films like SHANE and THE GREAT GATSBY. Veronica Lake, whose “peek-a-boo” hairstyle became a 40’s fad, wasn’t so lucky. A troubled soul diagnosed with schizophrenia, Lake turned to alcohol for relief, and by the early 60’s was working as a bartender in New York City. Her final film was the Grade-Z FLESH FEAST, in which she played a Nazi mad scientist. The beautiful Miss Lake died from complications of cirrhosis in 1973.

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Always reliable Brian Donlevy is at his sleazy best as Madvig. I like Donlevy much more when he plays villainous roles, and though Madvig’s not exactly a villain here, he definitely is a political slimeball. Joseph Calleia (Varna) was one of Hollywood’s great gangster types; he’s got a face made for wanted posters! The sadistic Jeff is brutish William Bendix  , and he’s one scary dude. Jeff is supposedly homosexual, but I see him more as a sadistic animal who gets off on inflicting pain no matter who it is. It’s a good performance any way you look at it, and a far cry from Bendix’s later success as a likeable lug on early TV’s THE LIFE OF RILEY. Bonita Granville (Opal, also called ‘Snip’) was just graduating from juvenile leads (as in the popular Nancy Drew films) to more mature roles. The doomed Taylor is Richard Denning, years before his days as a sci-fi hero (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, THE BLACK SCORPION ). Some other Familiar Faces of note here are Donald McBride (as the dishonest DA), Frances Gifford (a lovely sight to behold!), Moroni Olsen, Dane Clark, Billy Benedict, and Three Stooges nemesis Vernon Dent in a small role as a bartender.

Director Stuart Heisler graduated from the editing room, and does a great job handling the film. Would that I could say more about him, but he was mainly relegated to undistinguished ‘B’ pictures with a few exceptions (ALONG CAME JONES, SMASH-UP THE STORY OF A WOMAN) before ending his career in television. Given some bigger productions and we could be talking about Heisler as a major director, but it just wasn’t to be. That’s a shame, because THE GLASS KEY is a fine example of noir filmmaking, and a film everyone should see during this crazy political season. There’s just as much shady shit going on here as there is today on both sides of the aisle. The more things change, the more they stay the same.