Let’s Talk About… ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ (1941)

Film #42 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

Background

The 1930’s and 1940’s were a hectic time in America’s history. The great depression and war affected many people. As a result, comedy filmmakers from this time period wanted to move onto more serious material. Frank Capra went from making light comedies like the Oscar-winning It Happened One Night (1934) to more serious-minded material like Mr. Smith goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). George Stevens stopped making comedies after his experiences making films in the war.

Unlike these filmmakers, Preston Sturges believed that a film should never abandon entertaining the audience for the sake of a message. A former playwright who became an auteur of Hollywood, Sturges was known for his fast-paced comedies. Discontent with other filmmakers’ need for importance, Sturges set out to make a film to prove his point. He came up with Sullivan’s Travels.

Premise

Tired of making such silly films as “Hey Hey in the Hay loft” and “Ants in Your Plants of 1939”, comedy director John Lloyd Sullivan (Joel McCrea) wanting to direct the serious-minded adaptation of the book “O Brother, where art thou?” (an obvious parody of The Grapes of Wrath). Seeing the novel and adaption as a stuffy morality tale with little entertainment value, the Studio Executives refuse to allow him to direct it and tell him that he knows nothing about hardship. Realizing that they’re right, he decides to pretend to be homeless and set out on an expedition to discover what it means to be homeless and in trouble.

What follows is a picaresque road trip that teaches Sullivan his place in the world. Along the way, he meets a jaded floundering actress (Veronica Lake) who makes him take her along. Credited only as “the Girl,” she becomes his companion in this journey.

Observations

Sullivan’s Travels offers effortless amounts of fun while making a lot of observations about society. Like other Sturges films, it has many eccentric characters that add to the madcap comedy. It also has many plot twists that one does not often see in comedies of this era. The title, a reference to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, also suggests the more episodic nature of the film. Sturges had a major influence on many modern comedy writers and filmmakers, such as the Coen brothers, Wes Anderson, and Harold Ramis. In a lot of ways, his films remind me of early Simpsons episodes in the way they present multiple sides of an issue, rather than making a clear moral judgment on any of the characters. While he primarily worked in silly comedies, he often makes a film multifaceted narrative rather than one-dimensional. If you want a great introduction to Sturges work, this is one of his best films.

While it ages well and even has some very progressive ideas for the time, it still has some elements that date it. Unlike other films of the period, it features many African Americans and portrays them in a sympathetic light. In fact, an African American church group that lets prisoners watch a movie with them is portrayed in the best light of any of the characters. That being said, it also has a buffoonish black cook. However, the film portrays almost every character as buffoonish, self-serving, or hypocritical. There’s also a scene where Veronica Lake knocks over two men dressed in native American costumes on a movie set. While many of these characters moments do not work in a modern context, they also tend to happen quickly and act as a part of the background rather than as the main storyline. Inevitably, it also has a viewpoint on marriage and women that dates the film. A major plot point of the film comes from Sullivan’s bitter marriage to his wife, who refuses to grant him a divorce. Laws like this existed before 1969, when no fault divorce was introduced in the United States, making it much easier to get a divorce and making this plot point feel a little dated. However, it’s not the most integral part of the film and can be understood simply as a plot point. While many of these sequences exist as remnants of their time period, they do not detract from the overall style of the film.

Like many films of this time period, this film also knows that it’s a film and rarely attempts realism. Of all the comedy directors of this era, Sturges had one of the most cartoonish styles. In Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story, the lead couple is even named Tom and Gerry.  Every character exists as more of an archetype than an actual person. Sullivan is the hero, the Girl is the love interest, and so on. At one point, Sullivan even says, “there’s always a girl in the picture. Don’t you go to the movies?” They act less like modern comedy characters and more like Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny would. This cartoonishness works primarily because of its screwball comedy style. The pratfalls and slapstick that works well with this film’s innocent style. A modern film would not handle this material as well due to the more realistic grounded nature of modern comedies. With this style of filmmaking, the film shines.

That being said, Sullivan’s Travels is also probably Sturges’ most cinematic film, in that it has the most visual set pieces. It begins with a fight on top of a train, has one of the silliest car chases in history involving a Land yacht, and also includes an extended montage of Sullivan’s experiences among the homeless. There are two scenes in movie theaters that are marvels of both sound and visuals. It’s also worth noting that this is the first film Sturges directed that he also wrote entirely for the screen (his first two films came from plays he had written). This film also resembles a more modern comedy in that it has a less theatrical and farcical plot than films of this time period. Many of Sturges’ other films have plots like this. While by no means bad films (you should absolutely see them, especially The Palm Beach Story and The Lady Eve), the plots tend to not age as well due to changing social conventions, such as marriage. However, those other films also have an absurdity that makes them worthwhile. It makes for an engaging viewing experience that many of Sturges’ other films do not have.

Sturges (right) with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake

Final Conclusion

Sullivan’s Travels is a fun film that makes us consider the importance of entertaining and helping people, especially those less fortunate than ourselves. However, the playful silliness also makes for a very engaging viewing experience. Unlike other films of the time period, it has a silly style that leads into pathos. It also remains one of Sturges’ most masterful works in terms of style and tone. Few films capture the time so well and resonate as much now as Sullivan’s Travels does. Like many other films on this list, it warrants a watch just for the influence it has had on many other later directors and styles.

Trivia and Facts

  • The Coen Brothers are huge fans of this film. O Brother, where art thou? (2001) owes much of its style and setting to it. Another film of theirs, The Ladykillers (2006), references a gag where a picture changing faces based on the characters’ actions in this film.
  • Veronica Lake was heavily pregnant when filming. Her condition had to be tightly concealed to make sure the audience would not know.
  • The Hays Code did not allow two people to sleep in the same bed. Sturges got around this by having Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake sleep in a box car.