#439) Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
OR “A Bum Deal”
Directed & Written by Preston Sturges
Class of 1990
The Plot: Hollywood director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is dissatisfied with the successful comedies he has helmed for his studio, and vows to adapt the novel “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” into a dramatic movie about the impoverished. To better understand his subject, Sullivan checks his privilege and decides to travel the country posing as a vagrant. Sullivan doesn’t get too far before he meets a jaded aspiring actress (Veronica Lake) on her last day in Hollywood. Through their journey, Sullivan not only learns about the world outside of Hollywood, but also about just how important his comedies were to the average moviegoer.
Why It Matters: The NFR write-up gives an overview of the plot and the film’s genesis. A more detailed appreciation comes courtesy of an essay by film expert/author Julie Grossman.
But Does It Really?: It may not be the greatest film comedy, but “Sullivan’s Travels” is a well-crafted film that still has plenty of laugh out loud moments. Sturges’ screenplay gets its point across, and keeps up the pace (and the laughs) all the way through. No argument here for the NFR inclusion of “Sullivan’s Travels”.
Everybody Gets One: After appearing as an extra and bit player in several RKO and MGM films, Veronica Lake got her breakout role in 1941’s “I Wanted Wings”. It was during one take that her hair fell over her right eye, inadvertently creating her iconic “peek-a-boo” look. Lake was six months pregnant with her daughter Elaine during production of “Sullivan’s Travels”, resulting in the use of a body double in several scenes, and infuriating Preston Sturges, who never cast her again.
Wow, That’s Dated: The film’s look at our poverty situation is definitely dated (more on that later). But worse are some of the cringe-worthy credits at the end. Veronica Lake’s character is credited simply as “The Girl”, while African-American actor Charles Moore is credited as “Colored Chef” and is the one-note stereotype of the day. Oof.
Seriously, Oscars?: “Sullivan’s” received mixed reviews upon release, and audiences felt it wasn’t as good as Preston Sturges’ other 1941 offering “The Lady Eve”. Not surprisingly, “Eve” got an Oscar nod, while “Sullivan’s” was completely ignored.
- Preston Sturges was inspired to write “Sullivan’s Travels” as a response to his view that comedies of the era had gotten too preachy. The film is dedicated to “those who made us laugh”, which was originally meant to be part of the film’s epilogue.
- I was not familiar with Joel McCrea before this movie, and unsurprisingly, he’s quite good in this. His screen persona is somewhere between Gary Cooper’s naturalism and William Holden’s ruggedness. And at 6’ 2”, he was certainly one of Hollywood’s tallest stars.
- The opening scene between Sullivan and the studio heads is outstanding. The whole scene is covered in one take, with every actor spouting their dialogue at Hawksian speed. It’s all the exposition you need before we’re off to the races.
- Also in that opening scene: Sullivan bemoaning that “the world [is] committing suicide…with grim death gargling at you from every corner”. This is another movie I probably should have avoided during my COVID-19 shelter in place.
- The first scenes are packed with smart, funny dialogue that keeps everything moving, and is promptly followed by a delightfully slapstick chase scene that, had it not been preceded by such classy dialogue, would seem like a run-of-the-mill Three Stooges short. Sturges earns his chase scene.
- You could make a “Sullivan’s Travels”-type movie today, but you couldn’t remake it completely. The problem is that you would now have to acknowledge the mental health issues all too commonly found in our homeless population today. And that doesn’t make for good comedy. Sturges recognized the tricky line he had to walk, opting for non-verbal montages during the film’s deeper dives into the subject.
- There’s a 17-year age gap between Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. I’m gonna have to prosecute this movie to the fullest extent of the law.
- Best exchange in the movie: “How does the girl fit into the picture?” “There’s always a girl in the picture. What’s the matter, don’t you go to the movies?”
- Today on “We Suck at Inflation”: the 10 cents Sullivan starts out with is $1.76 today, and the five dollars he hands out to each bum is about $88.
- Whoa, there’s a shot of Veronica Lake in a shower. Didn’t see that coming. I assume all that steam is to hide her baby belly, among other things.
- Sturges definitely thought the phrase “income tax” was funny; he uses it a few times as a punchline.
- I didn’t realize “Sullivan’s Travels” is on the list of great chain gang movies like “I Am a Fugitive…” and “Cool Hand Luke”. Joel McCrea even spends a night in the box!
- After the film’s release, Sturges received a letter from the NAACP’s then-secretary Walter White in praise of the film’s church sequence, featuring a large group of African-American actors and extras. White thanked Struges for “the dignified and decent treatment of Negroes” in the movie. I guess he didn’t see the “Colored Chef” scenes.
- The film’s most famous sequence is Sullivan watching as his fellow inmates laugh hysterically at the Disney short “Playful Pluto”. The cartoon was Sturges’ second choice after Charlie Chaplin denied permission to use one of his films. Truly, every dog has its day.
- “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.” There’s your thesis statement. Thankfully, the preceding film makes sure Sturges doesn’t come off as too preachy.
- Preston Sturges’ film career wasn’t harmed by the lukewarm reception of “Sullivan’s Travels”, and he spent the ‘40s making seven more films, including future NFR entries “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and “Hail the Conquering Hero”.
- “Sullivan’s Travels” is the standard for any filmmaker (real or fictitious) who wishes to break out of their pigeonhole and create something “meaningful”. Lawrence Kasdan’s film “Grand Canyon” even goes as far to say “movies are where we get our answers to life.”
- Exhibit A for my argument that any modern remake wouldn’t be as good: “Life Stinks”.
- “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” finally did get made in 2000 by the Coen Brothers. Come for the Odyssey parallels, stay for the bluegrass soundtrack.