October 10, 2012
Sullivan's Travels (1941) *****
Directed by Preston Sturges
Sullivan's Travels (1941) (second viewing) Crowd pleasing masterpiece about the importance and virtue of pleasing crowds. ***** out of 5
Like all works of art, a film begins as a blank slate. When additions to the slate are influenced by the Hollywood studio system, often the purity of the film-making itself becomes compromised. Many say that a director should make the film he or she wants to make with complete freedom. On the other hand, sometimes the film that resides in the director’s head is not the movie that’s, for lack of a better word, “destined” to be. Sullivan’s Travels is about the irony that has come to be a staple of almost all comedy films made these days.
The great Joel McCrea plays John Lloyd Sullivan, a director of mindless films who wants his next picture to capture the zeitgeist of the post-depression hardships of the early 1940s. Born and raised with privilege, Sullivan decides that he will live the life of a poor person in order to make his film more authentic.
The studio decides to follow Sullivan as he tries multiple times to escape Hollywood only to find himself back where he started. During one of his botched escapes, he meets a sultry young aspiring actress ready to throw in the towel and leave Hollywood herself. The two become an unexpected pair as they jump on freight trains and sleep on crowded, dirty floors.
Eventually, Sullivan gets arrested for real for a crime he did not commit. The studio and the girl lose track of him. He’s forced to do manual labor, and he’s punished more than once for not following the rules. Thankfully for him, he does not lose the privilege to go to a local black church in order to watch a Pluto Disney cartoon.
Here marks a turning point for Sullivan. So determined to hold a mirror up to the suffering all around, he comes to realize that film has the power to heal. The miserable criminals find themselves screaming in laughter at Pluto, and so does Sullivan, much to his own surprise. That night, absolutely nothing else could have conjured such elation in these people.
There are two standout qualities which help elevate Sullivan’s Travels into the pantheon of great film comedies. First, this movie co-stars Veronica Lake. Enough said. She wears her hair almost like a mask, shielding part of her face, adding a palpable allure. When Veronica Lake enters the picture, you stop what you’re doing and watch. Second, writer/director Preston Sturges peppers Sullivan’s Travels with witty, high-energy dialogue. The movie moves at a brisk pace, helped in great part by Sturges’ masterful screenplay.
I’ll take Citizen Kane and Vertigo any day. Give me some Fellini and Renoir, and I’m a happy guy. Yet, I must not forget that films pleasing mass audiences are not our enemies. Sullivan’s Travels is a screwball comedy with a great deal of low-brow humor, and yet, it’s a glorious achievement. It’s a crowd pleaser about the virtue of crowd pleasers, which have absolutely no reason to cater to the lowest common denominator. Like Sullivan’s Travels, movies can be popular and be masterpieces at the same time.