Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sullivan's Travels (1941): Preston Sturges' Social Satire

Ants in Your Plants of 1939 is one of the fluffy comedies that fictional director John L. "Sully" Sullivan holds as a claim to fame. Tired of making lightweight albeit highly profitable movies, Sully is determined to make a serious socially conscious film called O Brother, Where Art Thou (yes, the Coen brothers borrowed this title from this film) despite the protests of his studio bosses. As a further irritation to these money mongering moguls, he proclaims his intentions to hit the road, disguised as a hobo, in order to experience poverty and suffering first hand, as these two elements of life have never crossed his path.

This is the basic premise of Sullivan's Travels, Preston Sturges masterpiece of writing and direction that helped him build his reputation as supreme satirist in Hollywood during the early 1940's. One of the first successful screenwriters to begin directing his own scripts, Sturges had already hit pay dirt with his first three writing/directing efforts, The Great McGinty (for which his screenplay won an Oscar), Christmas in July and his classic The Lady Eve. His features, like other directors who transitioned from writing, emphasized his own witty, literate scripts.

Sullivan's Travels, though a satire on Hollywood and the movie industry, has several multi-genre elements. There's slapstick, farce, heavy drama, qualities of noir and the last segment is as good a prison picture as I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). Sully (Joel McCrea) and his comely companion (Veronica Lake, credited simply as The Girl) experience a gamut of emotions along the road as they search for suffering. The film glides seamlessly from a glamorous and funny look at Hollywood with its limousines, swimming pools and tennis courts, to a harsh, realistic view of the grungy world of mission community showers and finding a meal out of a trash can. Lake's character physically shows this change in her hobo costume, going from a jaunty, slightly askew chapeau to a more somber straightforward version, as she and Sully find some of the misery they seek. Some parts seem very Capra-esque, though with a sharper bite and less sentimentality. Director Capra (along with director Lubitsch) is even mentioned early in the film.

As John L. Sullivan, Joel McCrea was at the peak of his career, recently completing Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent and about to go into another Sturges classic, The Palm Beach Story. Sometimes called a "poor man's Gary Cooper", McCrea has been an underrated performer. Versatile and solid, the actor starred in some of Hollywood's best films and his Sullivan shows his comedic skills sharply honed. Likewise, Veronica Lake was red hot in Tinsel Town after her appearance in this film. From Sullivan's Travels she started her string of cool vamps in Paramount crime dramas along side Alan Ladd, but like McCrea, Travels proves an excellent showcase for her flair for the funny, as well as the more dramatic moments. Her dry, unhurried delivery is perfect, especially as a foil for McCrea's sometimes harried, perturbed tone. She doesn't fear looking unglamorous when the scene calls for it but when she does glam it up, oh boy! Her famous peek-a-boo bang is coiffed in full force and set the trend for her much copied look. Pregnant when cast, she kept her condition a secret in order to get the part. Reportedly, Sturges was very upset with her once the pregnancy was discovered.

Sullivan's Travels is a classic in every way. Preston Sturges would see as rapid a fall in the late 40's as he'd experienced a rise earlier in the decade (the same can be said for Veronica Lake) but his sparkling gem of a film, along with his others of the period, would forever embed him as a master director in Hollywood history.


  1. This is actually my #1, all time favorite film- hands down. My favorite thing about it is that it shows how important movies are- even the silly fluffy fare. Like Joel McCrea says in the movie: for some people, it's all they have.

    Great review!

  2. This is my favorite Sturges' film (well at least out of the 3 I've seen which include The Lady Eve and Palm Beach Story).

  3. Sturges is among a handful of my favorite directors... but for whatever reason, I tend to rate this one lower than most Sturges fans. I still love it, but I prefer a number of his other films - The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story, Hail the Conquering Hero, Christmas in July.

    Still, it's an outstanding movie and this is an outstanding review. I never tire of watching Sturges films.

  4. This is as perfect as a movie can get.

  5. It's also one of my favourites :)

    I love the work of Preston Sturges.

  6. Sturges really knew how to handle this sort of thing. And Veronica Lake, who knew she could be so funny!

  7. Hi Rupert, wow, I am really behind in reading your reviews. love them. this is a great one. Love this film all though I love this film I love Lady eve a lot more. Veronica Lake makes the movie for me. Who would of thought it? lol.

  8. I'm a huge fan of Preston Sturges and really enjoyed this post. Thanks, Rupert. For those who don't own or haven't seen SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, it's airing this Thurs., Oct. 8, on Turner Classic Movies, 8pm eastern, 5 pacific. It's one of the very best from the man's relatively short heyday. It's probably obvious which is my favorite...

  9. I don't quite know what to say that hasn't been said already...

    But, I very recently saw this film for the first time and was astounded. Sturges knew how to make 'em. This was such a multilayered film; not all senseless slapstick and not all brooding melodrama.

    And Veronica Lake... Wow. 'Nuff said.



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