Film and Television Features

Sullivan's Travels (1941)

When Sullivan’s Travels came out in late 1941, Preston Sturges was Paramount’s most valuable asset after Cecil B. DeMille. He was on a roll, his first three movies as writer-director garnering praise from critics, long lines at the box office, and an Oscar on his mantle. This sudden rise to power made a quirky, witty satire like Sullivan’s Travels possible. His standing, however, would prove to be untenable. The top brass favored docile writers and unimaginative directors, and Sturges was neither. He took risks with every movie he made, and Sullivan’s Travels was his greatest gamble.

Sturges once wrote that the film satisfied his urge to tell other comedy directors “that they had gone too deep-dish; to leave the preaching for the preachers.” Yet the film has undercurrents that make it much more than an apology for laughter. Conflicts between art and commerce had dogged Sturges since his start in Hollywood, and they inform its plot.

John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is an earnest young director who has gained success with musical comedies such as Ants In Your Pants Of 1939. He plans to make a socially conscious movie titled O Brother Where Art Thou?, but the studio bosses try to dissuade him, arguing that he knows nothing of the misery he wants to portray. Taking this as a dare, Sullivan proposes to disguise himself as a tramp and hit the road for a time. This he does, with the studio’s PR staff following his steps in an enormous land cruiser. He shakes them off his trail, only to end up back in Hollywood, where he meets a down-on-her-luck actress (Veronica Lake) at a night-owl diner, who takes pity on him and buys him ham and eggs. Not even the prospect of love can dissuade Sullivan, who is stubborn in his desire to hit the road again, but this time he goes through a harrowing experience that will change the course of his life.

Sturges wrote that the film “started with a discussion about movie-making, and during its unwinding tried a little of every form that was discussed.” This is what sets the film apart from other films of the era. Sturges has the audacity to start the film with an action sequence that involves two men fighting atop a fast-moving train. This movie within a movie is the set up for a discussion between Sullivan and his bosses that has the fast dialogue of a screwball comedy and the sharp observations of a tart satire. The film goes into Mack Sennett mode with a hilarious car chase, then enters romantic-comedy terrain with the meet-cute of its main characters.

The second half of the film is darker in tone. It becomes a grim portrait of soup kitchens, flop houses, and shanty towns. Sullivan seems to have learned his lesson, but Sturges won’t let him off easy. At this point, he lands in prison, and it’s there where he falls into hopeless despair. This is the build up to one of the greatest scenes in movie history, when the prisoners are taken to a modest black-run church to watch a movie. Without going into spoiling details, it can be said that there are comedic and cathartic payoffs.

Sturges’ singular vision makes the movie work, beginning with his choice of actors. There is a sincere quality to Joel McCrea that goes well with Sullivan’s intellectual aspirations, his insecurities, and his cluelessness about survival fundamentals. Veronica Lake sparkles as a world-weary girl whose cynicism hides a core of sweetness, and her banter with McCrea is sublimely screwball. Sturges’ world gains gravity through his supporting actors, played by great personalities such as Eric Blore, William Demarest, and Franklin Pangborn.

There are no small parts in this world, and the best lines are often spoken by peripheral characters. Take for instance Sullivan’s butler, played by Robert Greig, who frowns at his employer’s plan with the line “The poor know all about poverty, and only the morbid rich would find the subject glamorous.”

Sturges had a multifaceted background as playwright, entrepreneur, and inventor. He loved gadgets and every aspect of filmmaking. Sullivan’s Travels was only his fourth film, but there is a confidence in his sense of pacing that would take anyone a lifetime to master. This efficiency worked in his favor and opened the door for other writer-directors such as John Huston and Billy Wilder, proving that good writers could become good filmmakers.

Sullivan’s Travels failed to find an audience, despite being chosen by critics as one of the best films of the year. It wasn’t a dismal flop, but Sturges now had a chink in his armor. He went on to direct great hits for Paramount, including the production-code-defying The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek. A new regime at the studio, led by Buddy DeSylva, saw his genius as an inconvenience, and his tenure there would be over by 1943. By then, his charmed existence had burst like a bubble. Two flops for 20th Century Fox and his personal financial problems sent him back to the ranks of script doctors. He died bankrupt in New York in 1959 as he struggled to get some projects off the ground.

Sullivan’s Travels has been selected by the American Film Institute as one of the greatest movies of all time, and is being preserved by the National Film Registry. It’s still culturally significant. Today, we have our own ants-in-the-pants movies, mainly the same old superhero adventures and buddy comedies. What has changed since 1941 is that the tyranny of the bottom line has become stronger. Unconventional directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, and Sturges would not get a break in our present studio system. With no one filling the void, big studio films will continue to lack wit, wisdom, and originality.