At the start of Sullivan’s Travels, movie director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) has been screening his latest effort. The picture within the picture concludes with an intense rooftop fight aboard a train. It’s almost absurd in its inflated action and Sullivan is not at all pleased with his creation. This type of escapist entertainment may be all right for some, but it’s social commentary he now seeks. These are troubling times, he argues, with war in Europe and strikes on the home front, and the ambitious, idealistic filmmaker wants something beyond mere cinematic frivolity. Apparently, so did the director of Sullivan’s Travels, the great Preston Sturges. At least that’s what he ended up with anyway.
Sullivan’s Travels, “By” Preston Sturges, as the opening credit proclaims, lending the filmic fable something of a storybook quality that matches the design of its titles, is dedicated, “To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons…” In other words, to comedians. In its witty way, Sullivan’s Travels is an ode to the simplicity and purity of laughter, and laughter it has in spades. Writer/director Sturges (one of the first in America to tout the dual designation) has never been funnier, and the film, especially at the start, bustles with a breakneck pace of one-liners.
With Sullivan’s privileged upbringing, it’s decided that he can’t really know about hard luck. What authority does he have to make a film about socioeconomic troubles and human suffering? Concluding that the only way to know and understand is to jump head first into the life of the American destitute, he dons the appropriate hobo garb and is all set to get into character. At first, he tries to escape his managerial PR crew, who follow closely behind his wanderings, safely documenting his earnest if ridiculous plight, but it doesn’t take long for him to finally accept a dependency on their security.
Along the way, Sullivan encounters “The Girl,” played by the absolutely stunning Veronica Lake. She’s a down-on-her-luck actress about to throw in the towel and give up her Hollywood dreams. Not yet revealing his true identity, Sullivan finds that she knows his films but doesn’t know much about him. When he brings up a few titles, ones he casually dismisses, he discovers she likes just the type of movie he’s trying to get away from. A romance blossoms between the two, and he eventually lets her into his real life. The chemistry is obvious, and as much as anything, in this perceptive, world-weary girl, Sullivan has met his match. She is quick-witted and calls his bluff; she knows trouble and can see beyond his good-natured affectation. Also seeing the potential adventure in it all, she agrees to accompany him on his educational/philosophical journey.
Sullivan embarks on this escapade with the best of intentions—attempting to walk in the shoes of the tramps (literally at one point), thus gaining the expertise and qualification needed to make an accurate film—but through it all, there is the underlying realization that he can always go home. Though he may not see the correlation, his trouble escaping his own life parallels the vagrants and their struggles with social mobility. In some ways, he gets an idea about their hardships, but really, he has no idea.
That is, until he is attacked, presumed dead by those back in Hollywood, and subsequently arrested. With no way to prove his identity, he is sentenced to toil away in a hard labor camp where he is told there is “no privilege” amongst the convicts. Suddenly, this is the real deal; he is trapped with apparently no reprieve.
It’s during Sullivan’s incarceration that the film hammers its point home. Taken to see a “picture show” (some Walt Disney cartoons), the downtrodden prisoners laugh uproariously at the silly, animated hijinks. Much to his surprise, so does Sullivan. Maybe there’s nothing quite so wrong with amusing fluff after all, particularly for those whose real lives are marred by the adversity he so heedlessly tried to recreate on screen. Despite his high-minded ideals, Sullivan discovers, and we come to appreciate, that comedies and light entertainment indeed have their place, often serving a more profound purpose than they get credit for.
Ultimately then, Sullivan’s Travels brilliantly has it both ways. Like John Sullivan, Sturges at first seems to similarly seek a film with an ethical standing, something expressing the rigors of everyman Americana. Sullivan—and by association Sturges—is ostensibly looking for something “like Capra,” as Sullivan’s producing partner quips. (Perhaps so, but this is a slyer, more sarcastic, sharper Capra.) Yet by the end of the film, Sullivan—and, again, by association Sturges—derides to a degree those films with a moral pretense, a stance made all the more comical, complex, and effective when it becomes apparent that Sullivan’s Travels had a message of its own all along.
Then there’s the cast. Joel McCrea already has an extensive body of work behind him, including Foreign Correspondent with Alfred Hitchcock the year before. In the title role of this picture, he is endearingly affable in his naïve yet undeniably genuine endeavor. But though he gets the top billing, it’s Veronica Lake who steals the show. This was just her fourth credited role in a feature film (and her second not under her real name, Constance Keane), but her presence is instantly—and spectacularly—dazzling. She was surely a remarkable beauty (there’s a reason why she is highlighted in so many posters for the film), but as she would show here and in movies to follow, she was quite the actress as well.
Out now on a new Criterion Collection Blu-ray, Sullivan’s Travels is an essential American film, which, in case there is any doubt after watching the movie itself, the supplements accompanying the release certainly attest to. First of all, the new restoration looks fantastic, and among the extra features are a somewhat crowded audio commentary featuring Noah Baumbach, Kenneth Bowser, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean, as well as interviews with Sandy Sturges, the director’s widow, and the director himself, from 1951. Critic David Cairns puts together a video essay featuring Bill Forsyth, who counts Sturges as a major influence, and Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer (1990), a feature-length documentary for which its writer, Variety film critic Todd McCarthy, won an Emmy, is an additional highlight.
In this latter supplement, it’s Paul Schrader who perhaps best puts Preston Sturges’ exceptional career into perspective, declaring he was, “to comedy what John Ford was to the Western.” Or, to summarize another way, as Sullivan notes at the end of the film, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”