Thursday, August 21, 2008

Sullivan's Travels

"Sullivan's Travels" (Preston Sturges, 1941) Entertaining 1941 "message picture" "with a little sex in it." Director John L. Sullivan has a case of "Hamlet disease,"* and wants the studio to bankroll a serious picture about poverty--"Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?"**--but while the brass haggle over whether they want to do it or not, "Sully" (Joel McCrea) dresses the part and goes amongst the poor and down-trodden for research. There, a girl (Veronica Lake, playing "The Girl") down on her own luck trying to get acting jobs, uses her last thirty cents to buy him breakfast. Sully gets the guilts, and tells her of his idea, and ropes her into the scheme.

The two then skip the studio publicity-mill bus that's been set up to track their moves as they spend the next few days hopping freights, eating at soup kitchens, and sleeping at flop-houses. The movie fairly careens with changes of tone from earnest pathos to roaring comedy--the poor are saintly (though one thief is particularly verminous), while the rich Beverly Hills folk, they are a foolish bunch. And Sully's "experiment" falls a bit short when he and The Girl can abandon it at a moment's whim (although Sturges does insure a more authentic experience, just to ensure that his point gets made).

Ultimately, the film seems a bit self-justifying in that a comedy film-maker makes a comedy about why comedies are needed. One would think that Sully could read the trades and see how well his movies were doing and come to the same conclusion. But let's not quibble. The movie is a great construction with Sturges' rock solid writing delivering a punch or punch-line every third line or so, all delivered at a break-neck pace by his stable of regulars and
McCrea, whose sense of light comedy was impeccable, and Veronica Lake
, who was never better than the breezy blonde who goes along for the ride.

"Sullivan's Travels" is the brightest star of the Preston Sturges series of Paramount comedies. If it can lead one to seeking out the rest of this too-overlooked writer-director's films, then that's gravy.

"Sullivan's Travels" is in the United States National Film Registry.

* When a comedian yearns to play Hamlet.

** Yes, this is where the Coen Brothers got it.

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