Monday, July 13, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Sullivan's Travels"

"Sullivan's Travels" is a strange and wonderful movie. It's a film about filmmaking, and has been cited by numerous directors and screenwriters as one of their favorite films, among them Joel and Ethan Coen, who named their movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" after the name of the film that the protagonist in "Sullivan's Travels" wanted to make.

John Sullivan is a big-shot Hollywood director known for making light comedies that rake in money. This, of course, is an apt description of Preston Sturges, an successful writer and director of comedies who used this movie to comment on his own career.

Sullivan wants to give up comedies to make a big, important film, and by the end of his journey he learns that there's nothing more important than making people laugh. Sturges made a movie filled with slapstick and quite a bit of silliness, but also with a harsh eye toward the state of America at the tail end of the Great Depression and before Pearl Harbor.

Sully decides that he hasn't suffered enough to make a tragic picture, so he resolves to go out on the road as a tramp with only a dime in his pocket so he can experience the hardships of the common man. His heart is in the right place, but the execution is sloppy: He has a small pack of journalists, assistants and even a cook following him around in a recreational vehicle to make sure things don't get too hairy.

He runs into a failed actress played by Veronica Lake, in her first major film role. She's only credited as "The Girl." I was surprised to see that she was already wearing the iconic wavy haircut that became her trademark; somehow I would have thought that would come later. She's absolutely lovely, of course, and when she dresses up as a boy to accompany Sully on his travels manages to become even more adorable. Even better, she proves to be a crackerjack at comedy, tossing zingers with star Joel McCrea with some real crackle.

McCrea was known in 1941 as a poor man's Gary Cooper -- anything Cooper turned down, he got. So he was shocked to learn that Sturges wrote this role especially for him.

After recovering at Sully's mansion for a few days, they set out again and this time manage to encounter some genuine hard times. They sleep on a crowded floor, and Sully has his shoes stolen. Things really take a dark turn when the shoe thief later encounters Sully and knocks him cold and stuffs him into a train car. Then a trainyard bull beats him senseless, and when Sully recovers he bloodies the bull and gets sent to prison.

The swampyard jail sequence, despite taking up only a fairly short amount of screen time, packs a wallop of an impact. It seems to have inspired a whole generation of jail-themed movies, from "Cool Hand Luke" on down. The brutal chief guard, the toadying trusty, and the soul-draining work in the hot sun just leap off the screen.

I have to admit I warmed slowly to "Sullivan's Travels." It starts out very light and slapsticky, but gets darker and better the further it goes on. How ironic that Preston Sturges had to make a dramatic masterpiece to prove the value of laughter.

3.5 stars

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