A one-of-a-kind, highly influential dark comedy about valuing our own contributions
This week’s film is a departure for me. With few exceptions, every film I’ve recommended I’ve loved and even cherished from my very first screening. “Sullivan’s Travels” is a film that took me several viewings to understand and warm up to, but once I became in sync with this imperfect masterpiece, I realized this satire on Hollywood is one powerful film. Its rapid-fire wit, irony, and artistry have all made it a certified classic, inspiring the likes of directors such as John Lasseter and Joel and Ethan Coen (who borrowed the name of their 2000 film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” directly from this film). It is among a limited number of films to receive a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the American Film Institute voted it the 25th Most Inspiring, the 39th Funniest, and the 61st Greatest American Film of All-Time. In addition to being fascinatingly entertaining, I consider it required viewing for anyone truly interested in classic cinema, as it showcases the work of one of Hollywood’s most influential artists – writer/director Preston Sturges. This is not your run-of-the-mill comedy by any means.
“Sullivan’s Travels” takes place immediately after the Great Depression and while World War II was raging, and follows the plight of “John Sullivan”, a crackerjack film director of fluff comedies (like “Hey, Hey in the Hayloft” and “Ants in your Plants of 1939”). Overcome by an urge to make socially significant films which reflect the currently distressed world, he has chosen “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a story reflecting the troubles and suffering of humanity, to be his next film. This switch from surefire comedy to socially somber message films has studio executives in a frenzy, one of whom asks Sullivan, “What do you know about trouble?”. Realizing he is right, “Sullivan” decides to hit the road dressed as a vagabond with only ten cents in his pocket to learn about trouble.
While at home dressing into the studio wardrobe department's tramp outfit, he explains to his valet and butler: “I’m going out on the road to find out what it’s like to be poor and needy, and then I”m going to make a picture about it”. To which his butler replies: “I have never been sympathetic to the caricaturing of the poor and needy, sir… The poor know all about poverty, and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous”. And with that, “Sullivan” sets out on his travels to experience hard-luck. Early on he stops at a diner and orders a cup of coffee and a doughnut. Thinking he's a hobo, a beautiful woman (known simply as “The Girl”) offers to buy him ham and eggs. We learn she is a broke, aspiring actress who couldn’t make it in Hollywood and is heading back home. Once she finds out who “Sullivan” is and what he’s up to, she insists on tagging along, pointing out that she knows the real world better than he does. And so the two embark on the journey together (both donned in studio costumes), and a romance begins to brew.
In many ways “Sullivan’s Travels” is a mischievous film. It takes stabs at the “message” films of the day, yet it turns out to be filled with messages of its own. It depicts Hollywood as uncaring and out of touch, yet it is very much a Hollywood film and contains realistic portraits of poverty. It shows race in bold twists and nonsegregated ways (for 1941), such as putting its stereotypically bumbling Black cook (played by Charles R. Moore) in whiteface, and having the film’s climatic scene take place in a Southern Black church as Black congregants sing "Go Down Moses (Let my people go)”, while mostly white men walk down the aisle in shackles. And perhaps in its most daring bit of roguishness, “Sullivan’s Travels” packs nearly every film genre into its ninety minutes, all framed by comedy ranging from humorous dialogue to full-blown slapstick.
Because the beginning of this film is so hysterically funny, the first time I watched it I was expecting the laugh-out-loud laughs to continue, and the subsequent shifts in tone threw me. After repeat viewings, I realized that “Sullivan’s” journey is very much a reflection of life, comprised of comedy, romance, drama, cruelty, and tragedy. And as “Sullivan” drifts through the world, many themes drift throughout “Sullivan’s Travels”, providing food-for-thought on topics such as privilege versus poverty, wanting to make a difference, an artist’s relationship with the world, Hollywood and society, compassion, the importance of laughter, the power of movies, and appreciating one’s own gifts. I’ll elaborate a bit more in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section so I don’t spoil the end of the film. “Sullivan’s Travels” merely presents things, leaving it up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions, making for a film that begs to watched over and over. To be able to pull off this unique cinematic feat requires the skill of a genius. And that genius is Preston Sturges.
Sturges wrote and directed “Sullivan’s Travels” with a masterful finesse. Known for his witty, fast-paced dialogue and offbeat plots, somehow his clever dialogue still sounds entirely natural. Just listen to the banter between “Sullivan” and “The Girl” when they first meet at the diner. It's as if we are listening in on a normal conversation. Sturges manages to write distinct voices for each of his characters, transforming them into real people. Even his bit players and extras are so specific, they seem “off-the-street” real. One look at them and we know exactly who they are (such as a guy we see for a split second eating popcorn in a movie theater). Sturges never overdoes his dialogue, and there are many extended scenes which contain no dialogue whatsoever. His film direction is just as savvy as his writing, and with all the moods in this film, he gets a chance to show his versatility – whether via rip-roaring camera movements during the riotous van and car chase, or his hauntingly steady shots from a moving train’s perspective as “Sullivan”, “The Girl”, and a host of vagrants dash to get onboard. This is one brilliantly made movie.
Chicago born Preston Sturges came from a wealthy, colorful, and cultured background, which accounts in large part for his artistic uniqueness and voice. His eccentric mother left his father, heading to Paris with Sturges when he was three. They returned to Chicago when he was five and she married the wealthy, non bohemian Solomon Sturges who adopted Preston (whom Preston loved). Sturges traveled between the US and Europe with his mother, often with her good friend, dancer Isadora Duncan (his mother gave Duncan the scarf that killed her). He was raised going to opera, museums, and dance concerts, surrounded by poets, dancers, painters, singers, and other artists. After a stint in the US Army Air Service and a series of odd jobs (including eight years managing his mother's cosmetic business), Sturges appeared on Broadway in 1928’s ”Hotbed” (his only Broadway appearance as an actor) and began writing plays. His first play "The Guinea Pig" was produced in 1929, followed by five more before 1932. A successful playwright from the start, Hollywood came calling, and in 1930 he began working as writer for hire in movies. At the same time, two of his Broadway plays were made into films (“Strictly Dishonorable" and "Child of Manhattan"). He continued writing or co-writing screenplay after screenplay, signing with Paramount Pictures in 1933. Some of the films he wrote or co-wrote include “Twentieth Century”, “The Invisible Man”, "Easy Living", "Diamond Jim", and "The Broadway Melody of 1940”.
The first film to be produced from a solo Sturges screenplay was “The Power and the Glory” in 1933, during which he watched the filming, learned everything he could about filmmaking, and realized the director was king. Wanting more control over how his screenplays were adapted, he decided to become a director and thought if he wrote a screenplay a studio wanted badly enough, he would attach himself as director, and that’s what he did. It took him six years, but in 1939 he finally sold "The Great McGinty” to Paramount for $1, with the caveat that he direct. The film was a surprise success and earned Sturges a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award (the first win in that newly created category). Sturges became the first successful screenwriter to become a director – a groundbreaking move which paved the way for giants like John Huston, Billy Wilder, and Joseph Mankiewicz who quickly followed. “The Great McGinty” also began Sturges’ unprecedented string of writing/directing seven extraordinary hits in five years (1939 to 1944), which were “The Great McGinty”, “Christmas in July”, “The Lady Eve”, “Sullivan's Travels”, “The Palm Beach Story”, “The Miracle of Morgan's Creek”, and “Hail the Conquering Hero” (the last two earned him Best Original Screenplay Oscar nominations). Sturges had established himself as a completely individual writer/director who put his own spin on 1930’s screwball comedies. His films burst with energy and the unexpected in a mix of comedy, tragedy, and irony, all colored by audacity, simple American values, with a sophisticated European air.
Sadly, Sturges’ meteoric rise to Hollywood heavyweight and “King” of Paramount Pictures came to a crashing end almost as quickly as it began. As the end of his contract with Paramount was approaching, the studio began meddling with his films, holding back release dates and making changes. His film "The Great Moment" (which the studio altered) was released in 1944 and was his first flop. He and Paramount parted ways and that same year he formed California Pictures with his friend, producer Howard Hughes. He was now also a producer (one of only four writer/producer/directors in the world, alongside Charlie Chaplin, Noël Coward, and René Clair). During his partnership with Hughes, Sturges made one film, "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock" in 1947 (a poorly received vehicle for silent star Buster Keaton). While working on a second film for California Pictures titled, "Vendetta", Hughes fired Sturges and their partnership ended. Ostracized from Hollywood (some feel because of jealousy that he became too big and powerful), he returned to Broadway writing two more shows, and made only a couple more films. Sturges directed only twelve feature films in his career (not including “Vendetta”). He also wrote songs, owned a machine shop which manufactured his inventions (including a kiss-proof lipstick), and owned a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard named The Players. He was married four times. Preston Sturges died of a heart attack in 1959 at the age of 60. He died at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City while reportedly writing his autobiography, which he had tentatively titled, “The Events Leading Up to My Death”. A very Sturges ending indeed.
Joel McCrea stars as “John L. Sullivan”, the film director who wants to find out what trouble is all about. It’s rumored that Sturges wrote this part specifically for McCrea, and with his straightforward attitude and everyman charm, he is fabulous in the role. He looks, acts and feels like a sheltered movie director living the high life who knows nothing of the world's troubles. As McCrea masterfully underplays, his dialogue and likability flow naturally. “Sullivan” has a hard shell, which in a strange way becomes funny as he passionately explains to studio executives how he wants to make a film to reflect the troubled world while making casual jabs about Pittsburgh and nonchalantly conceding to include "a little sex” in the film. The scene in which “Sullivan” and “The Girl” enter the train car and start speaking to the two men inside is handled so well by McCrea, it becomes uncomfortably apparent they are completely out of place. McCrea is marvelous, and it is definitely one of his best performances.
Born in Pasadena, California, Joel McCrea began appearing in college plays while also performing at the Pasadena Playhouse and working in films as a stuntman. He started appearing as a film extra in 1927, working his way up to bit parts, and by 1928 landed his first leading role in "The Silver Horde”. In 1930 he signed with RKO Studios and was quickly cast as a leading man opposite leading ladies such as Dolores del Rio, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne, Fay Wray, Shirley Temple, Miriam Hopkins (with whom he made five films) and Barbara Stanwyck (with whom he made six films). McCrea kind of had two separate film careers, and “Sullivan’s Travels” came at the peak of his first, as leading man easily navigating comedy, romance, drama and thrillers (and even a musical), which included films such as Alfred Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent", "The More the Merrier", and Sturges’ "The Palm Beach Story". McCrea also appeared in a handful of Westerns, a genre with which he felt most at home, and from 1944 on, he turned exclusively to Westerns (with very few exceptions), including "Ride the High Country", "Wichita", "The Virginian", and "Buffalo Bill”. His other notable films include "The Most Dangerous Game", "The Lost Squadron", "These Three", and "Bird of Paradise”. In 1958 he made his only television appearance, as the star of the short-lived Western series "Wichita Town", which also featured his son, Jody MCrea. McCrea considered himself a rancher, not an actor, and continually bought land just outside Los Angeles, eventually acquiring 3,000 square acres of land (much of which was donated after his death to places like the Thousand Oakes YMCA, The Joel McCrea Wildlife Preserve, and Boys and Girls Club of Camarillo). From his real estate and movie career, he was a multi-millionaire by the end of the 1940s. In 1933, he married actress Francis Dee, and the two remained married until his death. Joel McCrea died in 1990 at the age of 84, on his 57th wedding anniversary.
Veronica Lake is perfectly cast as “The Girl”, an aspiring actress ready to throw in the towel. Lake has a comedic lightness to her performance, put to great use when she first appears in the diner. Like McCrea, she beautifully underplays her role, bringing a sense of vulnerability underneath a blanket of coolness. One thing Lake didn’t disclose to Sturges when she was cast was that she was six months pregnant at the time. Costume designer Edith Head had to design clothes to mask her stomach, which was also hidden by camera angles and props.
In her troubled childhood, Veronica Lake lost her father when she was ten, was expelled from boarding school, moved around a lot, and according to her mother, was diagnosed with schizophrenia (although later claims say that wasn't true). In her twenties, she moved to Beverly Hills with her mother and stepfather, and began studying acting and appearing onstage. She also began extra work in films, starting with “Sorority House” in 1939. After more extra and bit parts, producer Arthur Hornblow Jr. saw footage of her, changed her name (from her real name, Constance Keane to Veronica Lake), and cast her as a nightclub singer in his 1940 film, "I Wanted Wings". The film was a hit and made her a star. In the film, her long blonde hair accidentally fell over her eye, and in a flash Lake’s trademark look was born. Her hairstyle, which became known as the “peek-a-boo”, created a national fad which women all over the country replicated. Sturges saw her in that film and cast her in “Sullivan’s Travels”, which was only her second substantial screen role. Her next film was the noir thriller “This Gun for Hire” in 1942, in which she first appeared with Alan Ladd. A smoldering sexuality oozed through her icy exterior (and Ladd's), and the two became a very popular screen duo, starring opposite one another in three more films (appearing together in a total of seven). Also in 1942, Sturges was producing the comedy “I Married a Witch”, in which he wanted to reunite McCrea and Lake. Possibly because of the many accounts that Lake was trouble to work with, abused alcohol, and had a devilish streak, McCrea turned it down because he didn’t want to work with her again (although the two later appeared together in the 1947 Western, “Ramrod”). A full-fledged Hollywood glamour girl, at her height Lake was one of Paramount’s highest paid stars.
During her rise to fame the US became involved in World War II, and as men went to the battlefield, many women worked in war industry factories, lots of whom donned Lake’s “peek-a-boo” hairstyle. As these “peek-a-boo” cuts were often getting tangled in machinery, the government asked Lake not to wear her hair down for the remainder of the war. She agreed (and even did publicity as seen in the 1943 Life Magazine photo shown to the right), and in her next film, 1943’s “So Proudly We Hail!”, wore her hair rolled up in the back in the shape of a “V”, into what became known as a “victory roll”. In 1944 (with her hair still up) she had her first flop, “The Hour Before the Dawn”. With heavy drinking and a reputation for being difficult, her contract with Paramount wasn’t renewed, and in 1948 her career was virtually over. Lake appeared in the 1951 American-Mexican film "Stronghold", on TV from 1950 until 1954, and even appeared on-stage, but all to no success. She began drinking more heavily and worked odd jobs such as bartending. Stepping out of retirement, she came back to make two more films, "Footsteps in the Snow" in 1966, and the low-budget horror film "Flesh Feast" in 1970 (her last film appearance). A lasting cinematic icon, Lake was inspiration for the animated character "Jessica Rabbit", and for Kim Basinger's Oscar winning character in the 1997 film "L.A. Confidential”. In 1969, Lake published her autobiography, Veronica: The Autobiography of Veronica Lake. In a rare 1971 interview with Dick Cavett, when asked if she was bitter about her career or would have done things differently, she responded: "Wouldn't exchange it for anything in the world. There's only one thing that I must say about this. When I say I left, It was not out of bitterness. It was not cynicism. I guess I had a career in reverse. I was a star first and learned to live afterwards”. She was married four times, including her marriages to art director/set designer John S. Detlie, and actor André De Toth. Veronica Lake died in 1973 at the age of 50 from of acute hepatitis and kidney injury.
Like many other auteur directors (such as John Ford, Ingmar Bergman and Pedro Almodovar), Sturges formed his own stable of actors. He felt a loyalty to many who appeared in his early films and as such, continued to cast them. Well over a dozen of his troupe appear in "Sullivan's Travels", including Frank Moran as the doctor (who appears in eleven Sturges films), William Demarest who plays "Mr. Jonas" (who appears in eight Sturges films), Esther Howard who plays "Miz Zeffie" (who appears in seven Sturges films), Robert Warwick who plays "Mr. Lebrand" (who appears in six Sturges films), and Charles R. Moore who plays the "Colored Chef" (who appears in six Sturges films). Because the supporting cast in this film is truly an ensemble and their roles are mostly fleeting, I won’t give my normal bios on supporting players this time.
However, I do want to point out Eric Blore who plays “Sullivan’s” valet. If you are watching the films on here, you previously saw him as Fred Astaire’s valet in “Top Hat” (where you can read more about him). He also appeared Sturges’ previous film, “The Lady Eve”. A name you will also recognize from many of my previous entries is that of the film’s costume designer Edith Head, whom you can read about in my post on “A Place in the Sun”.
“Sullivan’s Travels” is a film I’ve come to greatly enjoy and admire (and somehow keep watching), and hopefully you will too. It will give you a glimpse at the work of a trailblazing writer/director who pushed the boundaries of storytelling, and will show you an entertaining array of truly wonderful performances. Enjoy “Sullivan’s Travels”!
This blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications each Tuesday of every subsequently recommended film. At the bottom of the Home page you can also find a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog, and subscribe so you can see which classic films will be revealed each week. Thanks so much for reading!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
Sturgess makes a very quick cameo appearance in “Sullivan’s Travels”. After “The Girl” has become a movie star and is on a movie set sitting between takes reading that “Sullivan” is alive, she quickly gets up, and for a split second there is a man with dark hair in the back who turns around. He is none other than Preston Sturges.
Many view this film as Sturges’ justification for making comedies during such a horrific time in history, but he later said he wrote it because his comedy director counterparts were turning their comedies into "message movies”, and this film was made to tell them to leave the preaching to the preachers.
The animated movie the churchgoers and prisoners watch at the end of the film is the 1934 Walt Disney animated short “Playful Pluto”. Sturges originally wanted to use a Charlie Chaplin short film, but Chaplin denied him permission.
In case you were taken aback by the ending (which I first perceived as abrupt), I’ll give you my thoughts about it. In the prison camp, “Sullivan” actually tastes the poverty and harshness in life he sought, and after losing his identity his life becomes hopeless. While watching the cartoon he finds himself laughing, momentarily forgetting his harrowing life. In that moment he realizes laughter is the only relief for hardship and despair, and that that's what he provided to people through his comedies. He finally understands just by being who he is, he already makes a difference.