Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Sullivan's Travels poster“Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) is an unconventional comedy directed by Preston Sturges. Not a great hit in its day, the movie has since seen a renewal of interest and is considered by many to be one of Sturges’ greatest films. I, however, consider it to be a confusing mess.

Like most of my movie posts, this entry contains spoilers.

Let me say up front that I read a few things about this film before seeing it. As a film buff I knew this was a film I should have seen years ago; references to “O Brother Where Art Thou” and the character name “Mr. Smearcase” pop up in my little world with regularity. One of the first things I read said that this film was, in a way, Sturges’ attack on Capra-esque films where the everyday man overcomes personal adversity.

Sure enough, one of the first things director John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) says he wants to do is make a serious film, “something like Capra”. Sullivan is known for his comedies like “Ants in Your Pants of 1939”. Sullivan has decided he wants to film a socially-conscious movie based on a book called O Brother, Where Art Thou? — a title referenced by the Coen brothers for their 2000 film — that is to be an examination of the poor in this country and an “answer to Communism”. Studio executives tell Sullivan that he’s ill-equipped to explore the subject. Sullivan is a product of a rich family and Ivy-league education and he simply could not understand what it’s like to struggle through poverty. Sullivan decides to pretend to be a hobo for a few days to find out what it’s like.

At home his butler and valet help him find ratty old clothes to wear so he looks the part of a transient. The butler, Burrows, quite clearly states that Sullivan is making a mistake. He feels Sullivan is simply caricaturing the poor and that “only the morbid rich” find the topic interesting or glamorous. Sullivan may claim to be helping the poor people, but the poor won’t get anything out of Sullivan’s condescending little adventure. Lest you think Burrows is being kind, note that he ends his lecture by announcing that poverty is a “positive plague”, “contagious,” “filthy,” and “virulent” and it is to be shunned. By association, one assumes that poor people are also contagious, filthy and worthy of being shunned. Clearly, Burrows isn’t concerned about the poor’s invasion of privacy, he’s just scared that poverty might touch him.

Despite people continually telling Sullivan that no one wants to watch a serious movie about serious issues, Sullivan resolutely heads out on his adventure. But he’s not alone, as the studio has him followed by a huge RV containing several studio employees. It’s worth noting that these employees are played by some fine character actors, including Franklin Pangborn, William Demarest and Margaret Hayes. The studio execs are played by the always-wonderful Porter Hall and Robert Warwick. In contrast, Joel McCrea’s performance is markedly flat and uninteresting. I can say without hyperbole that I would have enjoyed this film much more if it had omitted the two leads, and that includes Lake… but we’ll get to her in a moment.

The film goes through one of its many mood swings at this point, while the RV chases Sullivan through fields and woods as he tries to out run them. There’s lots of fast-motion and speedy classical pieces to indicate just how wacky these hijinks are. We see the secretary (Margaret Hayes) bounce around wildly with her skirt practically up over her head. Now, that’s not a bad thing, but we see her lovely legs revealed about 6 times in short order, which turns this scene slightly creepy. As the RV comes to a rest and everyone gets out, we see the African-American cook has been bustled around so much he managed to get his face squarely implanted in a cream pie, and he’s now got a solid white mask of meringue on his face, with nothing but his eyes and mouth showing. Oh, the hilarity.

The movie switches back to standard comedy mode and Sullivan finally takes off on his own. Soon he finds himself chopping wood for a randy widow who rattles off double entendres faster than Blanche Devereaux. While she cleans a distinctly phallic bed post, she asks the sister she lives with, “Do you know what I need?” Well, yes, we all know what you need, you’ve been telling us what you need for 5 long minutes. Only the dullest or most comatose viewer would not know what you need. While this scene is wickedly funny in spots, it goes on far too long.

The widow, sister, and Sullivan go to see a movie and Sullivan discovers what it’s like to see one of his own movies with “the common people”. It’s noisy, crowded, and distracting. The segment ends on another schizophrenic note, where the portrait of the widow’s dead husband (the man in the portrait is producer Paul Jones) changes expression and Sullivan escapes the widow’s lair by climbing out a window.

He finds himself in Hollywood again, and visits a diner where a beautiful girl (Veronica Lake) still in evening dress takes pity on him and buys him ham and eggs. She’s been evicted from her apartment and is about to go home, having found no success in the movies. They banter a bit but it’s continually interrupted by Sullivan wanting to talk about the poor. The Girl (she has no name; why should she?) keeps telling him no one wants to hear about the poor, they want to laugh. After more innuendo-laden banter about pie, Sullivan talks The Girl into waiting for him while he gets his car.

Not only is Sullivan so dim that he hasn’t heard any of the half dozen people who told him the public wants comedy in its films, not serious social criticism, he’s also not aware of how stupid it is to drive his extremely expensive convertible while he’s still dressed in tramp clothes. He and The Girl get picked up by the cops; his butler and valet bail them out.

Back at his mansion, The Girl realizes Sullivan was just using the poor for his own ends, and gets angry. Well, as angry as Lake can muster. This is the first Veronica Lake film I’ve seen and I was surprised that she had such a limited acting range. In the diner she wasn’t even able to keep an appropriate gaze at Sullivan, her emphasis was all wrong, and she acts bored and uninterested through most of the film – just like McCrea. They have all the chemistry of soggy cardboard.

Over more ham and eggs, The Girl comments that she wants to go back home. She was never more than an “extra girl” who never managed to stay long enough to have breakfast with directors. When she realizes Sullivan wants to go back out on his adventure, she decides to go with him as his “frail” or “beazle”. They dress up like hobos and are dropped off at the railroad tracks in a luxury car. They manage to make it to Las Vegas, where they meet up with the studio RV. A diner owner takes pity on them and gives them free coffee and donuts. Sullivan has the guy paid back with $100 that Franklin Pangborn — in an inexplicably tight and shiny Western outfit — runs in and gives to the owner without explanation.

They travel on to Kansas City where they apparently finally realize what it’s like to be poor. The movie switches to the socially-conscious movie that everyone keeps telling Sullivan no one wants to see. Sullivan and The Girl get food and shelter from the Salvation Army, who use the opportunity to have a preacher rail at the crowds of the destitute. Sullivan’s boots are stolen by a transient whose own boots were worn out. After a day of wandering around gawking at the poor, Sullivan is tired and hungry, so he grabs The Girl and goes running back to his safe haven. Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if those hundreds of people suffering in poverty had a huge well-stocked RV and enormous Hollywood mansion to run to when they got tired of playing poor?

Sullivan wants to pay back the poor for what he’s learned (which is, honestly, absolutely nothing) so he goes out with a wad of $5 bills to hand out to random poor people. While passing out fivers he’s knocked out by a tramp — apparently the same tramp who stole his boots — who takes the money and leaves an unconscious Sullivan on a train. The tramp gets hit by another train and is mistaken for Sullivan because of the boots. The newspapers all report that the great director Sullivan was murdered, apparently by a tramp.

When he wakes up, Sullivan is still sick and dazed from the head blow. A security man hassles Sullivan for sneaking a ride on the train. Sullivan retaliates by beating the hell out of him. He gets sentenced to 6 years in prison while he’s still too sick to protest or figure out what’s going on, and the prison warden shows no mercy on the new guy. Soon Sullivan regains his memory but he’s already on the warden’s bad side, and has endured whippings and solitary confinement for disrespecting the warden.

The prisoners are allowed to go see a movie one night, a movie hosted at a nearby church. The preacher, played by the wonderful Jess Lee Brooks, encourages the churchgoers to not judge “lest ye be judged”, and to give up the first several pews for the prisoners. The prisoners march in during a somber rendition of “Let My People Go”. The film begins and it’s a Mickey Mouse cartoon, and Sullivan sees everyone laughing like crazy at the cartoon. It’s a release, and even the most beaten down, unhappy prisoner can escape for a few minutes at Mickey’s antics.

And… he finally gets it.

Sort of.

Deciding that he’s far too important to do time — “They don’t sentence picture directors,” he says. “They don’t?” asks fellow prisoner Trusty — he confesses to his own murder to get his picture in the paper. He’s found and rescued, because I guess beating someone’s face to a pulp is just fine as long as you’re an important Hollywood director.

The studio now wants Sullivan to direct the film version of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but he refuses, saying he wants to make comedies. He notes he hasn’t suffered enough to know what it’s really like to be poor, but he does know that laughter is all some people have.

And with that empty little platitude, the film ends… 90 minutes too late.

My initial reaction is of wonder. Specifically, I wonder why I just spent 90 minutes watching some boy wonder director make a movie about a boy wonder director who was apparently incapable of personal growth. What, exactly, was the point? That we live in a complex world of moral ambiguity? Yeah, thanks for the memo there, Sturges.

Despite the potential lessons Sullivan could have learned, all he gained was a bit of appreciation for the comedies that had already made him rich and famous. Well done, then! Sullivan is now rich, famous, and he can sleep well at night knowing his comedies bring a bit of light into the dreary poor man’s life! I’m so glad we got that resolved.

It is impossible for me to care less about the character of the spoiled, rich John Sullivan than I do right now. Joel McCrea couldn’t make him interesting or likable,and that’s hard for me to admit, because I love McCrea in Westerns, especially “Ride the High Country”. Even if the acting had been less bland, I’m not sure the film would have sat any better with me.

Despite being the star attraction, one should note that Veronica Lake can’t act her way out of a cool wet sack. Her beauty was the marketing for this haphazard film, though. The poster is nothing but a caricature of her and her famous hairstyle, topped by the tagline “Veronica Lake’s on the take”. Except, well, she isn’t. The Girl is not “on the take” in the movie; the tagline simply sounded good. Lake is stunningly beautiful and we are treated to a glimpse of her nude behind a mostly see-through shower curtain, but these things are rather vapid reasons to watch a so-called classic film.

The IMDb notes that the NAACP gave Sturges a commendation for the “dignified and decent treatment of Negroes in this scene”, which I assume would be the church scene with Jess Lee Brooks. I doubt the commendation was for the African-American cook getting a face full of cream pie earlier in the film. I also note that Brooks isn’t even credited, despite his role being just as large as many other character actor’s.

Sturges (seen here in a background cameo behind Lake) apparently wanted to examine American culture while creating a comedy that entertained. One review online suggests this film was set in 1937 while the Depression was still rather strong, however, since Sullivan is working on a sequel to “Ants in Your Pants of 1939”, I think that’s incorrect. The film is set in the year it was released, 1941, which is such a unique moment of time in American history. The Depression was starting to lift, but the country was about to jump into WWII. It’s unfortunate Sturges wasn’t able to capture any of that unique history in this film.

LINKS & SOURCES:
Reel.com’s Movie Review

Senses of Cinema

Gratuitous Franklin Pangborn at sixmartinis and the seventh art

MovieDiva

Veronica Lake profile at Things and Stuff

Golden Boy: The Sexy Way of Joel McCrea at Bright Lights Film

DVD Beaver entry on “Sullivan’s Travels”

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4 Comments

  1. i’m sorry you didn’t like “sullivan’s travel’s.” i like the silliness of it, especially veronica lake. [did you know she was pregnant at the time? that’s why her dresses were so voluminous.]
    one thing i found out watching subtitles is the title of sullivan’s film is “ants in your PLANTS 1939” which makes me scream with laughter even typing this.
    how about doing a post on margaret hayes? i’d love to read that.

  2. “Ants in Your Plants of 1939” is terrific! I’ll pop the DVD back in with the subtitles just so I can see that.

    I read that she was pregnant, and in one scene you can really see Lake’s tummy. I think it’s when they’re walking around amongst the poor.

    I’m one step ahead of you on Margaret Hayes! And Franklin Pangborn, and probably Jess Lee Brooks if I can find enough material on him. Focusing on the character actors and lesser-known movies is much more my style.

  3. Great blog – I’ll definitely come back!

    Shame you didn’t like Sullivan’s Travels – I really liked the cynicism of it – the hero’s really an idiot rather than an underdog and I liked the way he didn’t triumph over anything, he just learned a healthy respect for the fact that things can’t be tidied up like they can in the movies and that it takes more than one narrative to make the world go round. Very sophisticated for the apple-pie sort of stuff they were making at the time I thought.

    Anyway, you’ve got a great blog and a great style of writing, keep up the good work!

  4. Thanks for your kind words! I consider it high praise, as your blog is simply terrific. I’d like to add it to my blogroll if you don’t mind.

    I also wanted to like “Sullivan’s Travels” and appreciate it more, but I couldn’t connect with the playwright at all, and thus it made me quite critical of his character. It was quite a departure from the normal fare, though, and I do appreciate that.

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