|Preston Sturges’s fourth directorial effort, Sullivan’s Travels, has often been described as “Swiftian,” and, indeed, its satire is as much akin to Jonathan Swift’s incisive sensibilities as its title is purposefully evocative of Swift’s satiric masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels. Sturges, who was the first Hollywood director to rise from the ranks of screenwriter, brought irony to the American cinema. He was widely regarded for both the socially conscious humor and sly subversion he brought to screwball and slapstick comedy and for the warmth he brought to his characters, from the main star down to each supporting role. Sturges was first and foremost a great writer, but he was also a highly competent director who, although never overtly flashy, was a gifted visual storyteller who made the most of his own witty dialogue.|
Sullivan’s Travels takes place during the Great Depression and follows the adventures of a pretentious, yet sympathetic Hollywood director (often read as Sturges’s on-screen surrogate) named John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), who wants to stop making shallow comedies and direct a socially conscious masterpiece about human suffering. When two studio executives point out to him that he was a child of privilege who has never known a day of true suffering in his life, Sullivan lights upon the perfect idea: He will venture out into the world dressed as a hobo with only 10 cents in his pocket and learn what it is like to be poverty-stricken. (The scene in which he comes up with this idea after bickering with two studio executives is one of the best of Sturges’s entire output, as he captured the zings of the rapid-fire dialogue, sharp-barbed Hollywood satire, and comical conflict in a few perfectly choreographed long takes that would have made Orson Welles proud.) Sullivan’s intentions are noble in their own way, but that doesn’t stop Sturges from satirizing them by showing how a rich man donning hobo clothes and finding out what it’s like to be poor is fundamentally misguided.
Sullivan’s plan is not nearly as simple as he imagines, not because of the suffering it entails, but because he keeps failing in his attempts to be a hobo. For instance, when he first sets out, he hitches a ride on a truck in the middle of the night, and when he wakes up the next morning, he finds that he has been taken right back to the middle of Hollywood. His situation is further complicated by the large caravan of publicists and photographers sent by the publicity-hungry studio executives to follow him and document his journey. Along the way he meets up with a young woman (Veronica Lake)—she goes through the whole movie without ever being given a name—who is on her way out of town after a failed attempt at being an actress. Once she learns of Sullivan’s experiment, she decides to join him on his travels as his companion.
McCrea and Lake (who, believe it or not, was six months pregnant during the production) have immediate physical chemistry as soon as they share the screen together, even though this chemistry is purposefully muted by the plot and never fully realized. Yet, it is impossible to have a screen siren like Veronica Lake on-screen and not generate sexual heat, which she does quite often, even when (or, especially when) she is dirtied up and dressed down in hobo clothes. She makes a perfect counterpart to McCrea’s everyman director, and they have an excellent on-screen rapport, romantic and otherwise.
Formally, Sullivan’s Travels is not Sturges’s strongest work—it has a somewhat meandering quality to it that belies its minimal 90-minute running time—yet, it is a work of great depth and humanity that also happens to be very funny. It is a thoroughly mature work that doesn’t shy away from certain harsh social truths, although it is still able to posit an upbeat, hopeful message that doesn’t come off as naïve or syrupy. This tension existed in many of Sturges’s films, and it is the principle cause why many critics at the time, most notably James Agee, misread him.
While Sullivan’s Travels is a comedy, there are harrowing moments throughout that ensure us that Sturges does not take his subject matter lightly. When it comes to portraying poverty, Sturges doesn’t back down or cut corners; one of the movie’s most effective sequences is a silent seven minutes in which we simply follow McCrea and Lake as they move through the world of the homeless. There is nothing funny about being poor, as Sullivan’s butler plainly informs him near the beginning of the movie, and Sturges never pretends that there is. However, there is a great deal of humor in a wealthy movie director bumbling his way through trying to be poor, and Sturges makes it clear that Sullivan never really gets it until events conspire to assure him that he has no way out of his poverty. Only then does he truly understand the desolation of so many of his fellow human beings. What Sullivan ultimately learns is that it’s not the poverty itself that constitutes the suffering, but rather the inescapability of the poverty, the crushing of all hope.
The ultimate message of Sullivan’s Travels, spelled out a little too plainly in the final line, is the redemptive power of laughter. For a man who spent much of his career making comedies on both stage and screen, such a message seems obvious. Yet, for Sturges, there was something deeper and more profound that cut to the very essence of the cinema and its possibilities, especially in a time when the aesthetic and thematic severity of Italian neorealism was just around the corner.
Sturges emphasizes structurally and thematically that giving someone the opportunity to laugh—to relax, forget his worries, and simply enjoy humor—is more powerful than most would like to admit because it constitutes an escape, however temporary, from suffering. And Sullivan’s Travels does just that with its rapid-fire wordplay, outlandish slapstick sequences, and screwball situations. However, it also juxtaposes the comedy with strong doses of harsh realism that remind us that comedy is always in context—it never exists by itself.
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Overall Rating: (4)
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