Friday, July 24, 2020

Sullivan's Travels (1941)

USA, 90 minutes
Director / writer: Preston Sturges
Photography: John F. Seitz
Music: Charles Bradshaw, Leo Shuken
Editor: Stuart Gilmore
Cast: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall, Byron Foulger, Eric Blore, Robert Greig, Torben Meyer, Jimmy Conlin, Margaret Hayes, Ray Milland, Preston Sturges

At the point we meet John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), at the start of Sullivan's Travels, he is a successful can't-go-wrong Hollywood wunderkind director of comedies (for example, Hey, Hey, in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Plants of 1939). Maybe a kind of Roy Del Ruth or Lloyd Bacon? Now he wants to make an earnestly serious picture about social suffering and so forth. Mogully producers love Sullivan for his commercial touch of comedy gold, but they don't want to muck that up with some dour exercise that won't sell tickets. This is actually a familiar pattern even in later eras, where comic players of varying ability often appear to believe drama is more exalted than comedy, something they consider more like their day job. Because I am a Boomer, Woody Allen (Interiors, etc.) and Bill Murray (The Razor's Edge, etc.) spring quickly to mind.

I usually forget that the earnestly serious movie John L. Sullivan is determined to make is called O Brother, Where Are Thou? so it usually comes as a pleasant surprise. The Coen brothers redeemed it as a good joke nearly 60 years later. One of the bottomless supply of character actors attending director and writer Preston Sturges (speaking of the commercial comedy touch of gold, which for him was approximately across the midcentury war years) points out to Sullivan that he's not qualified to make a movie about social troubles, having never experienced any himself. That makes Sullivan determined to go to Wardrobe, get himself a hobo costume, and bum the rails around the country, searching for just that experience. And so here we are. 

The earnestly serious movie both Sturges and Sullivan appear to have in mind is The Grapes of Wrath, which came out the year before and was a solemn big deal for all concerned. The bad news about Sullivan's Travels is that it doesn't have much of interest to say about anything earnestly serious—kind of makes fun of the whole idea, in fact—while leaving terrible unexamined ideas about race and gender just sitting around due to lack of self-awareness (by our lights). So lots of wincing and cringing is guaranteed. The good news is that all those character actors pile on like troupers for virtually seamless sequences of slapstick and blackout gag bits, often existing and connected only by force of will, even as the picture bravely maintains a semblance of an absurd romance at the same time.

I've liked Sullivan's Travels more and I've liked it less—the same with Sturges more generally. The indulgences can be distractingly insane, such as a 13-year-old boy hot-rodding around in something it looks like the kid built, but which hits crazy freeway speeds on the back roads. It's even worse when Sturges inserts African-Americans, who seem to be taken as funny for just that reason. The mugging is set to 11. In fairness, all the white players are mugging like mad too, even if they are not additionally funny because they are Black. Cringe. Wince.

As fast-talking screwball comedy, Sullivan's Travels leans hard into shtick and tends to keep shying from the romance, which it abandons altogether in the last third. The picture benefits from the happy accident of chemistry between McCrea and Veronica Lake as his tagalong sidekick, who is never named and credited only as "The Girl" (wince, cringe). A lot of that chemistry is a matter of Veronica Lake's ever-befuddling cross between a vamp and a tomboy, which may never have been more adroitly balanced than here. McCrea is his usual weaselly version of Gary Cooper, a clean-cut nitwit you wouldn't entirely trust to help your grandmother across the street.

The finish involves a preposterous wish fulfillment sequence in which Sullivan is attacked, suffers amnesia, assaults a railroad cop with a rock, and is sent away to prison and hard labor on a chain gang working on a bayou. The only thing missing is a spiritual, and that comes later ("Go Down, Moses" with the famous line "Let my people go"). Fortunately, in Sullivan's Travels, there is no such thing as trauma, so in the end no harm no foul for all the torture and abuse suffered in prison (or, similarly, for the railroad cop's potential brain injuries assaulted with a rock). Yes, that makes it like a cartoon. As if to underline the point, it is literally a Mickey Mouse cartoon that produces Sullivan's great epiphany.

But there is no real epiphany in this story, except as something to snicker at a little. The hardest part of Sullivan's Travels for me to swallow is the reach at the end for a Jerry Lewis moral about comedy and redemption and the human spirit. Sullivan has learned his lesson in prison. He no longer wants to make O Brother, Where Art Thou? Now he is more content than ever to make his comedies, and the implication is the more goofy and slapstickier, the better. Next stop, The Day the Clown Cried.

Yet Sullivan's Travels is hardly without its pleasures. In its way, with its deployment of an army of '30s and '40s hey-that-guys (practically every name up top after Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake) and no joke too obvious not to make, in the vaudeville style, it is a comfort comedy of a certain superior quality—better than Shirley Temple, Ma and Pa Kettle, Francis the Talking Mule, The Little Rascals, and all those pre-TV exercises that were the bread and butter work of character actors and go-to comfort fare for many of the rest of us. Which makes Sullivan's Travels more or less a kind of prestige version of them. Really cool poster too.

1 comment:

  1. Seems like Sullivan's Travels tops most Sturges lists but I liked Miracle at Morgan Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero better.