The comic genius Preston Sturges believed that laughter is the best medicine, and that what people in hard times want is to forget their troubles and escape for 90 minutes or so into a world of lighthearted comedy, snappy repartee and slapstick silliness.
Sturges is best known today for two movies, both released in 1941: The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels. For a typical example of Sturges’ comic genius, watch The Lady Eve. By contrast, the equally brilliant Sullivan’s Travels is a bit of an outlier: a movie that blends comedy with social themes of poverty and injustice while paradoxically concluding that moviegoers already have enough reality, and anyway it’s presumptuous for privileged filmmakers to address hardships they know nothing about.
As if to practice what he preaches, Sturges begins in the world he knows best: in Hollywood, where we meet an earnest but temperamental young director of lowbrow comedies with titles like Ants in Your Plants. Our hero, John “Sully” Sullivan (Joel McCrea), has his heart set on making a hard-hitting socially conscious film with the grandiose title O Brother, Where Art Thou? (borrowed nearly 60 years later by the Coen brothers).
A crackerjack opening act kicks off with a daredevil fight scene atop a moving train—a scene that turns out to be the climax of a film within the film (the first of three). It’s the sort of morally serious project Sully wants to make, and he expounds eagerly on its symbolism (“Capital and Labor destroy each other!”), while a pair of skeptical producers argue that serious fare doesn’t sell.
Their best argument, though—which they make tag-teaming Sully in a breathless exchange shot in an uncut four-minute take—is that the privileged filmmaker knows nothing about the hardships he wants to portray. That takes the wind out of his sails…but not for long. Realizing that he can’t make O Brother without knowing hardship firsthand, Sully resolves to leave his wealth behind and experience poverty for himself.
The hubris and condescension of this familiar riches-to-rags quest are memorably highlighted by Sullivan’s butler: “If you’ll permit me to say so, sir, the subject [of poverty] is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty, and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.” When Sullivan protests that he’s “doing it for the poor,” the butler answers: “I doubt if they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy, I believe quite properly, sir.”
Sully won’t be deterred—but the mantle of privilege isn’t easily cast off. Dressed in hobo garb borrowed from costuming, Sully hits the road…with an enormous caravan of studio employees creeping behind him. And while he loses his shadows, it seems no matter how hard he tries, Sully can’t get very far from Hollywood before somehow winding up back there.
Along the way, he picks up another shadow: a disillusioned would-be actress (Veronica Lake) who takes pity on him and buys him breakfast even though she’s broke. Despite taking him for a bum, Lake unwittingly highlights Sully’s privilege in some pointed remarks about how differently she’d have to treat him if he were “some big shot, like a casting director.”
“The Girl” (who is never named) becomes Sully’s companion in a series of attempts to experience hardship. Each venture is somewhat more successful than the last, culminating in a striking seven-minute segment shot in the style of a silent-era “social issue” melodrama, with Sully and the Girl wandering through a hobo shantytown, eating at a Salvation Army soup kitchen and sleeping in a homeless shelter.
But it’s all a sham, because Sullivan always has the option of walking away any time he wants. Only when he loses his agency, and to an extent his identity, does he really learn what trouble is—and how much he has taken his privilege for granted.
These latter segments are striking in part because Sturges seems to be verging into just the sort of film he later claimed Sullivan’s Travels was meant to critique. He called the film “the result of an urge” to “tell some of my fellow filmwrights that they were getting a little too deep-dish and to leave the preaching to the preachers.”
“Leave the preaching to the preachers” is an interesting choice of words, considering a climactic scene in Sullivan’s Travels is set in a church with a baritone-voiced black pastor preaching and quoting scripture.
The church will be hosting prisoners for a picture show, and the pastor exhorts his flock “neither by word, nor by action, nor by look to make our guests feel unwelcome…for we is all equal in the sight of God.” As the prisoners shuffle in in chains, the pastor leads his flock in a stirring rendition of “Go Down, Moses.”
The upshot is that Sullivan’s Travels is both screwball comedy and socially conscious melodrama—as well as being a satire of socially conscious melodrama and a serious apologetic for crowd-pleasing comedy. It’s too complex and interesting a film to be reduced to its ostensible message that the world doesn’t need message pictures, but laughter, and its depictions of Depression-era hardship are as important as its comedy to its classic status today.
Sullivan’s Travels has been restored and digitally remastered in high definition for the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray, debuting April 14. Among the bonus features are the excellent, Emmy-winning 76-minute PBS documentary Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer, a new 17-minute video essay on the film (“Ants in Your Plants of 1941”) featuring Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth, and a dense but often interesting commentary track from 2001 by filmmakers Noah Baumbach, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Kenneth Bowser.
Sullivan’s Travels is suitable for teens and up.