The Set-Up: This may be the longest scene I've ever done. It took me a few hours to type up the dialog. But the screen-caps took me three minutes. There's not a lot of action in this opening scene from "Sullivan's Travels," but there's a lot of words, and a lot of character, all barrelling around at the speed of a freight-train. Quite a few laughs, too.
And a bit of truth.
I love the conceit of the director of such fluff pictures as "Ants in Your Plants of 1939" wanting to make a serious picture of "death gargling at you from every corner" (love that phrase). What comedian hasn't wanted to be taken seriously, from Jerry Lewis to Jim Carrey with dramatic--often too dramatic--parts? "Every comedian wants to play 'Hamlet'." And I love the "old money" men telling their made-up hard luck stories, just to convince him not to. And having it back-fire. And I love studio head LeBrand vacillating between telling Sullivan he's a jerk...but a brilliant, sensitive, lucrative jerk...and not that much of a jerk when you come right down to it, Sully', old pal. That feels very real.
Truth is, I had a hard time picking which scene from "Sullivan's Travels" to use. The very next scene, where Sullivan's butlers give him a hard time about getting gritty with humanity is equally sharp and truthful. So's the diner scene between Sullivan and "The Girl" (a very sharp Veronica Lake--her character's never named, probably because she's just there to sell the picture--take a look at that poster). But I chose this one as the best, even though it has one fatal flaw.
It needs a little sex in it....
The Story: John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is trying to convince two studio heads that his next movie should not be his usual comedy but an adaptation of the slice-of-hardship novel "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" They've just screened a recent "message" picture that "Sully" admires.
Sullivan: You see? You see the symbolism of it? Capitol and Labor destroy each other! It teaches a lesson--a moral lesson--it has social significance...
Hadrian: Who wants to see that kind of stuff? It gives me the creeps!
Sullivan: Tell 'im how long it played at the Music Hall!
LeBrand: It was held over a fifth week.
Hadrian: Who goes to the Music Hall? Communists!
Sullivan: Communists! This picture's an answer to communists! Sullivan: It shows we're awake and not dunking our heads in the sand like a bunch of ostriches! I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism! The problems that confront the average man!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it...
Sullivan: A little, but I don't want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document! I want to hold a mirror up to life! I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
Sullivan: With a little sex in it.
Hadrian: How about a nice musical?
Sullivan: How can you talk about musicals at a time like this, with the world committing suicide. With corpses piling up in the street! With grim death gargling at you from every corner! With people slaughtered like sheep!
Hadrian: Maybe they'd like to forget that!
Sullivan: Then why did they hold this over for a fifth week at the Music Hall? For the ushers?
LeBrand: It died in Pittsburgh!
Hadrian: Like a dog!
Sullivan: What do they know in Pittsburgh?
LeBrand: They know what they like!
Sullivan: If they knew what they liked, they wouldn't live in Pittsburgh! That's no argument! If you pander to the public, you'd still be in the horse age!
Hadrian: You think we're not? Look at Hopalong Cassidy!
Sullivan: You look at him! We'd still be making Keystone chases! Bathing beauties! Custard pie....
LeBrand: And a fortune!
Sullivan: A fortune! Of course, I'm just a minor employee, Mr. LeBrand...
LeBrand: He's starting that one again!
Sullivan: I wanted to make you something outstanding--something you could be proud of! Something that would realize the potentialities of film as the sociological and artistic medium that it is....
Sullivan: With a little sex in it. Something like....
Hadrian: Something like Capra.* I know
Sullivan: What's the matter with Capra?
LeBrand: Look, you want to make "Oh Brother, Where art Thou?"
Hadrian: Now wait a minute!
LeBrand: Then go ahead and make it! With what you're making, I can't afford to argue with you!
Sullivan: That's a fine way to start a man out on a million dollar production!
LeBrand: You want it, you got it. I can take it on the chin, I've taken it before.
Sullivan: Not from me, you haven't!
LeBrand: Not from you, Sully! Not from you! Not with pictures like So Long, Sarong," "Hey, hey in the Hayloft," and "Ants in your Plants of 1939"--but they weren't about tramps, lock-outs, sweatshops, people eating garbage in alleys, and living in piano boxes and ashcans ..
Hadrian: And phooey!
LeBrand: They're about nice, clean young people who fell in love, with laughter and music and legs. Now, take that scene in "Hey, Hey in the Hayloft"...
Sullivan: But you don't realize conditions have changed. There isn't any work. There isn't any food. These are troublous times!
Hadrian: What do you know about trouble?
Sullivan: What do I know about trouble?
Hadrian: Yes, what do you know about trouble?
Sullivan: What do you mean, what do I know about trouble?
Hadrian: Just what I'm saying...you want to make a picture about garbage cans. What do you know about garbage cans? When'd you eat your last meal out of one?
Sullivan: What's that got to do with anything?
LeBrand: He's asking you!
Hadrian: You want to make an epic about misery. You want to show hungry people sleeping in doorways.
LeBrand: With newspapers around them!
Hadrian: You want to grind 10,000 feet of hard luck, and all I'm asking you is what do you know about hard luck?
Sullivan: What do you mean, what do I know about hard luck, don't you think I've....
Hadrian: You have not! I sold newspapers 'til I was 20! Then I worked in a shoe store and put myself through law school at night! Where were you at 20?
Sullivan: Well, I was in college...
LeBrand: When I was 13, I supported three sisters, two brothers and a widowed mother. Where were you at 13?
Sullivan: I was in boarding school. I'm sorry!
LeBrand: Well, you don't have to be ashamed of it, Sully! That's the reason your pictures have been so light, so cheerful, so inspiring...
Hadrian: They don't stink with messages!
LeBrand: That's why I paid you five hundred a week when you were 24.
Hadrian: 750 when you were 25.
LeBrand: A thousand when you were 26
Hadrian: When I was 26, I was getting 18.
LeBrand: Two thousand when you were 27.
Hadrian: I was getting 25 then.
LeBrand: I'd just opened my shooting...Three thousand after "Thanks for Yesterday."
Hadrian: Four Thousand after "Ants in your Plants."
Sullivan: I suppose you're trying to tell me I don't know what trouble is....
LeBrand: In a nice way, Sully.
Sullivan: Well, you're absolutely right. I haven't any idea what it is.
Hadrian: People always like what they don't know anything about.
Sullivan: Certainly had a lot of nerve wanting to make a picture about human suffering.
LeBrand: You're a gentleman to admit it, Sully. But then you are, anyway.
Hadrian: How about making "Ants in your Plants of 1941?" You can have Bob Hope, Mary Martin...
LeBrand: Maybe Bing Crosby?
Hadrian: The Abbott Sisters...
LeBrand: How about Jack Benny and Rochester?
Hadrian: A big name band...
Sullivan: What....? Oh no! I want to make "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" But I'll tell you what I'm gonna do first. I going down to wardrobe to get some old clothes, some old shoes...
Sullivan: ...and I'm gonna start out with ten cents in my pocket.
Sullivan: I don't know where I'm going but I'm not coming back until I know what trouble is.
Sullivan: Don't worry, you can take me off salary!
LeBrand: Who's t...who's talking about taking you off salary?
Sullivan: So long, thanks for the idea!
LeBrand: Now wait a minute, don't be so impulsive! How soon will you be back?
Sullivan: I dunno, maybe a week, maybe a month, maybe a year. Don't worry about me! And thanks, Dracula, you gave me a great idea.
Hadrian: I gave ya....
(Sullivan exits, stage right)
LeBrand: Now look what you've done!
Hadrian: Yea...what I've done!
LeBrand: With your lies about selling newspapers!
Hadrian: I sold as many newspapers as you supported a family at 13! LeBrand: I opened a shooting gallery, didn't I?...
Hadrian: With money you borrowed from your uncle! We better insure him for a million.
LeBrand: He's worth more!
Hadrian: The bone-head!
LeBrand: Yes, but what a genius! (He hits the intercom) Get me a copy of that "O Brother, Where Art thou?"! I guess I'll have to read it now! (Intercom again) Make that two copies! (To Hadrian) Why should I suffer alone?
(Hadrian turns to look, surprised)
Words by Preston Sturges
Pictures by John F. Seitz and Preston Sturges
"Sullivan's Travels" is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection.
* Frank Capra