1001 Classic Movies: Sullivan's Travels

Sullivan's Travels (1942), starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake, is one of the 1001 classic movies you should see.

Each Monday, I'm going to recommend a classic movie you should see (for the reasons behind the 1001 series and reviews of earlier films covered go here). January's theme is movies about Hollywood. Today's selection is writer and director Preston Sturges' comedy, Sullivan's Travels (1942).

Sullivan's Travels tells the story of John Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a big-time Hollywood director with a mansion, a swimming pool, a butler (Robert Greig), and a valet (Eric Blore), who nevertheless wants to make an epic about the hardships of the Great Depression titled, O Brother, Where Art Thou? In order to prepare for the film, Sullivan decides to travel the country as a tramp with only 10 cents in his pocket. At first, he is tailed by an RV packed with press agents and studio employees, but eventually he manages to ditch them in favor of hitting the road with a struggling young actress (Veronica Lake).

Sturges was inspired to write the script for Sullivan's Travels after watching several comedies that "abandoned the fun in favor of the message," according to his autobiography (in case you were wondering, he's probably talking about the output of director Frank Capra, who mixed politics and comedy in movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe). The movie was a mixed commercial and critical success when it was released, but it has since gone on to become one of Sturges most popular and well-regarded movies, even inspiring the Coen brothers' 2000 movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Sturges' clever script for Sullivan's Travels allows him to have it both ways in a film that is both a raucously funny comedy and a social problem movie. In the first half of the movie, Sturges makes fun of the pretentious behavior of Hollywood elites who think they can understand the problems of  what My Man Godfrey (1936) called "the forgotten men," while the more serious second half of the film makes a powerful statement about the harsh poverty many Americans faced during the Great Depression. Sullivan, who started out the movie trying to make small talk about the economy with uninterested hobos, truly becomes a forgotten man, and he learns just how harsh and hopeless that fate can be.

Sullivan's Travels Viewer's Guide: This movie is one of the few films that can make you laugh and cry. Here's what to look for when you watch:
1. Lake. After becoming a breakout star in the war drama I Wanted Wings (1940), Lake was cast as the female lead in Sullivan's Travels despite the fact that she was six months pregnant. Paramount's legendary costume designer Edith Head was tasked with making costumes that concealed Lake's condition, and she did such a wonderful job that it is hardly noticeable onscreen.
2. Slapstick. Sturges filled Sullivan's Travels with all kinds of humor from witty repartee to sight gags (keep your eye out for a portrait that changes facial expressions), but the funniest moment of the film is a wild high-speed chase that evokes the slapstick antics of the Keystone Kops.
3. Sturges stock company. Sturges relied on a troupe of very talented character actors to fill out the supporting roles in his movies, and they are all in fine form in Sullivan's Travels, especially Jimmy Conlin as a kindly prison guard, Greig and Blore as Sullivan's indulgent servants, and William Demarest as a fast-talking press agent whose spiel includes the great line, "does that put a lump in your throat or does that put a lump in your throat."
4 Chain gang. The final third of Sullivan's Travels is reminiscent of Warner Bros. prison drama, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) with Sullivan, at least for a time, suffering the same fate as Paul Muni in the earlier film.

Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake take a break on the set of Sullivan's Travels (1942).
Other critics: Sullivan's Travels has an 100 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and Leonard Maltin writes that "slapstick and sorrow blend perfectly in this landmark Hollywood satire, which grows more pertinent with each passing year" in a four star review for his Classic Movie Guide. Critics in 1942 were somewhat mixed about the movie's appeal. The New York Times labeled the movie "brilliant," and the National Board of Review named it the best picture of the year,  but both the Hollywood Reporter and The New Yorker dinged Sturges' "pretentious" script with the Reporter critic noting that Sullivan's Travels lacked the "down to earth quality and sincerity which made [his] other three pictures a joy to behold."

The bottom line: Sullivan's Travels is an uproariously funny comedy that is both of its time and timeless. Watch it for the humor mixed with pathos and Sturges' wonderful stock company at the top of their game. 

Availability: Sullivan's Travels will air at 2:15 p.m. March 26 on TCM. It is also available on DVD, Blu-ray, and video on demand.

Next week, I'll continue the theme of Hollywood on Hollywood with the original version of A Star Is Born (1937) starring Janet Gaynor as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester.


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