Sunday, August 24, 2008

Don't Make a Scene: Sullivan's Travels

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....

LeBrand: Bu..
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?"
Sullivan: Yes!
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 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?
LeBrand: Yes!
Sullivan: What do you mean, what do I know about hard luck, don't you think I've....
Hadrian: No!
Sullivan: What?
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....
Hadrian: Yes!
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...

Hadrian: Huh?
Sullivan: ...and I'm gonna start out with ten cents in my pocket.
LeBrand: What?
Sullivan: I don't know where I'm going but I'm not coming back until I know what trouble is.
LeBrand: WHAT?
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)

"Sullivan's Travels"

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

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