Great Movies: 'Sullivan's Travels' and the Films of Preston Sturges
At a time when the country is crying from the tragedy in Newton, Conn., comedy may be the only thing that can give us a brief respite from our troubles.
That is a key theme in Sullivan's Travels (1941), written and directed by uniquely talented Preston Sturges (1898-1959). Sturges, pictured below, created a satire about a movie director, played by Joel McCrea, who longs to make a socially relevant drama, but eventually learns that comedies are his more valuable contribution to society.
John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a popular young Hollywood director fresh from a string of very profitable, but shallow comedies (e.g. Ants in Your Plants of 1939), tells his studio boss that he is dissatisfied and wants his next project to be a serious exploration of the plight of the downtrodden, to be based on the socially-conscious novel "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" by Sinclair Beckstein. Not surprisingly, Lebrand wants him to direct another, more lucrative comedy instead, but the idealistic Sullivan refuses to give in. He wants to "know trouble" first-hand as a tramp so he can return and make a film that truly depicts the sorrows of humanity.
Undeterred, Sullivan dresses as a penniless hobo and takes to the road. However, no matter how hard he tries, somehow he always ends up back in Hollywood. Lebrand insists that his staff follow him in a double-decker coach. Neither party is happy with the arrangement; Sullivan eventually persuades his guardians to leave him alone and arranges to rendezvous with them later. When he hitchhikes, he finds himself back where he started.
Then he meets a young failed actress (Veronica Lake) who is contemplating quitting the business. In return for her kindness to him, Sullivan gives her a lift in his car, without telling his servants; they report the "theft" and the pair are apprehended by the police. However, after considering her options, she becomes his traveling companion.
This time, Sullivan succeeds in living like a hobo. After eating in soup kitchens and sleeping in homeless shelters, Sullivan finally decides he has had enough. His experiment is publicized by the studio as a huge success.
Sullivan decides to thank the homeless by handing out $5 bills, but one man decides he wants more than his share and ambushes Sullivan when he is alone. Sullivan is knocked unconscious and thrown onto a train boxcar leaving the city, but the thief is run over and killed by another train.
Meanwhile, Sullivan wakes up in the rail yard of another city, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. In his confused state, he assaults the railroad worker who finds him, for which he is sentenced to six years in a labor camp. He eventually regains his memory, but not before learning the importance of laughter in the otherwise dreary lives of his fellow prisoners when they are allowed to attend a showing of Walt Disney's Playful Pluto cartoon. Sullivan comes to realize that comedy can do more good for the poor than "O Brother, Where Art Thou?."
But Sullivan still has a problem – he cannot convince anybody that he is Sullivan. Finally, he comes up with an ingenious solution and winds up getting released.
Sturges wrote the film [as a] response to the "preaching" he found in other comedies "which seemed to have abandoned the fun in favor of the message." Sturges may have been influenced by the stories of actor John Garfield, who lived the life of a hobo, riding freight trains and hitchhiking his way cross country for a short period in the 1930s.
The film opens with a dedication:
To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated.
Sullivan's Travels was not as immediately successful at the box office as earlier Sturges’ films such as The Great McGinty and The Lady Eve, and also received a mixed critical reception. Although the review in The New York Times called the film "the most brilliant picture yet this year" and praised Sturges's mix of escapist fun with underlying significance, the Hollywood Reporter said that it lacked the "down to earth quality and sincerity which made [Sturges's] other three pictures a joy to behold" and that "Sturges...fails to heed the message that writer Sturges proves in his script. Laughter is the thing people want-not social studies." The New Yorker's review said that "anyone can make a mistake, Preston Sturges, even.
The film is a satire of the conflict between art and commerce as well as the gap between the privileged and the impoverished. Sturges skewers the naiveté of wealthy entertainers who want to appease their class guilt by making "socially relevant drama."
The scene where the prisoners are taken to watch a cartoon takes place in a Southern African-American church; the film notably treats the African-American characters there with a level of respect unusual in films of the period. The Secretary of the NAACP, Walter White, wrote to Sturges:
“I want to congratulate and thank you for the church sequence in Sullivan's Travels. This is one of the most moving scenes I have seen in a moving picture for a long time. But I am particularly grateful to you, as are a number of my friends, both white and colored, for the dignified and decent treatment of Negroes in this scene. I was in Hollywood recently and am to return there soon for conferences with production heads, writers, directors, and actors and actresses in an effort to induce broader and more decent picturization of the Negro instead of limiting him to menial or comic roles. The sequence in Sullivan's Travels is a step in that direction and I want you to know how grateful we are.”
Senses of cinema.com posted this:
“Paramount gave in and allowed him to direct his own script, The Great McGinty. In spite of its utterly disillusioned perspective on American power structures, the film became a hit with audiences and critics alike. In 1941 the diligence and talent that he had poured into screenwriting prompted the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to establish a new category – Best Original Screenplay. Inevitably, Sturges was the first to achieve this accolade, for his film. Finally, the anonymous screenwriters had been given their due, and Sturges was on easy street in the Hollywood studio system. He celebrated by working frenetically for the following four years, making film history in the process.
“In Sturges’ cinema, the notion that hard work, dedication and honesty will inevitably bring you where you want to go in life is thoroughly and consistently ridiculed. Anyone with any real ambition plays dirty and doesn’t look back. By-the-book idealists lose their bearings in the murky maze of real life in America and end up as cynical survivors on the periphery of society – if they survive at all. The American Dream simply is no more, or if it is, it has mutated into something you would want to wake up from immediately. The emphasis on success and the principle of delayed gratification has turned into a desire for instant and strictly personal success; the common good rarely enters into it.”
In 2010, Vanity Fair published, "The Seven Wonders of Preston Sturges:"
“In just four years, 1940–44, Preston Sturges wrote and directed seven classics reflecting the America he loved and laughed at–a fast-talking, unpredictable melting pot that seems more real than the visions of Frank Capra or John Ford.
“The characters in a Sturges film are slickers and hicks, frantic, contemplative, melancholy, literate, sub-intelligent, vain, self-doubting, sentimental, cynical, hushed, and shouting. A hallmark of most artists is the consistency of their world—one thinks of the delicacy in René Clair’s work, the droll, intoxicating understatement of Lubitsch, the painful clamor of Jerry Lewis. But the Sturges world seems the product of a multiple-personality disorder. (Sturges used to dictate his scripts aloud to a secretary as he wrote them, and when he did, he convincingly played all the parts.) I can think of no other artist who keeps the delicate and the explosive so close together.
“This collision of tones perhaps took its cue from his life. He was born in Chicago at the end of the 19th century. His mother, Mary, divorced Preston’s father when Preston was not quite three and moved with her son to Paris. On her first day there she met the celebrated dancer Isadora Duncan. Though Sturges would at times resent his mother’s fast friendship with Duncan, he owed the Duncan family an enormous debt. Almost as soon as they arrived in Paris, Sturges, always susceptible to respiratory trouble, came down with a pneumonia that no doctor could tame. Isadora Duncan’s mother arrived with a bottle of champagne, from which she fed him lifesaving spoonfuls until he was restored. “Champagne and Pneumonia”—it could be the title of a Sturges movie. It also aptly calls up the conflicting elements at work in his films: the effervescent and the feverish.
“…Each of the seven films stands as an insouciant rebuke to the mythic America of John Ford, the inspirational America of Frank Capra, and the cozy America of MGM’s Andy Hardy series. If those movies were a warm hug to their audience, the Sturges pictures were a jab in the ribs, a sexy joke whispered in church—a wink, a kiss, and a hiccup. His pictures of life in this country are a lot like life in this country: messy, noisy, sometimes tough to take, sometimes hard to beat.
“While he does examine issues that are important to what it means to be an American—giving comic (and other) consideration to questions of ambition, money, heroism, and morality—he examines them with a flashing wit and a poet’s gift for slang that offers American English at its most entertaining.
“But his America is no shining city on a hill, no chorus of dissonant voices who find harmony when singing as one. It is shown for what we know it to be: a carnival of bull and glory, with a bag full of money or a broken neck waiting just around the corner. Virtue is punished (The Great McGinty) as often as it is rewarded (Hail the Conquering Hero), and a passionate belief in one’s ideas (Christmas in July) doesn’t help as much as blind good luck.” Other memorable films include The Palm Beach Story, The Lady Eve, Hail the Conquering Hero and Miracle at Morgan Creek.
Read the rest of "The Seven Wonders of Preston Sturges," by Douglas McGrath.
Visit your local library for these resources:
Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges.
Diane Jacobs, (1992).
Writer-director of such comedies as The Great McGinty and The Lady Eve Preston Sturges (1898-1959) was one of the most popular and acclaimed filmmakers of the 1940s. After becoming the third-highest-paid man in America in the late 1940s, he ended his years in virtual exile in Paris, separated from his family and on the verge of poverty but still gamely pursuing one unrealized project after another. His eventful life and his loftier-than-ever reputation among today’s film buffs account for why three Sturges biographies (his uncompleted autobiography, published 30 years after his death, among them) are now in print.—Excerpt of review by Gordon Flagg first published September 1, 1992 (Booklist).
Between Flops: A Biography of Preston Sturges
by James Curtis, (1982).
Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges
edited by Brian Henderson, 1985
Intrepid Laughter: Preston Sturges and the Movies
by Andrew Dickos, (1985).
Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges
by James Harvey, (1987).
Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges
by Donald Spoto, (1990).
Preston Sturges's Vision of America: Critical Analyses of Fourteen Films
by Jay Rozgonyi, (1995).
Three More Screenplays by Preston Sturges
edited by Andrew Horton, 91998.
1. Article illustration: Screenshot: Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea in Sullivan's Travels.
2. Preston Sturges.