Monday, May 4, 2009

Sullivan’s Travels

By Elise Nakhnikian

For better and for worse, Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is rooted in its time. It captures the flavor of life in the Great Depression -- without being the least bit depressing itself. It also includes some scenes with African-Americans that make me cringe. But in spite its flaws, I love it for its sly humor, its wisdom about human nature, and its running commentary on what makes us love the movies.

Sullivan’s Travels was one of the first movies directed by Preston Sturges, who was the first Hollywood screenwriter to direct his own scripts. The early 40s were this golden boy’s golden age: In just two years, he cranked out three classic American comedies, this one, The Lady Eve, and The Palm Beach Story.

Talking pictures were still relatively new when Sturges arrived on the scene. He decided great dialogue was the key to making them work, and boy, could he write dialogue. When director John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) argues with his studio bosses at the beginning of Sullivan’s Travels, their exchange makes you laugh – not because it’s jokey but because of what it reveals about their characters, starting with Sullivan’s limousine-liberal determination to tell “real” stories about poor people.

The studio turns him down, saying he doesn’t know enough about the subject. So Sullivan decides to hit the road as a tramp – suited up in a costume from the wardrobe department — to gain some “real life” experience. That leads to a series of often comic misadventures and a lesson in the value of entertainment.

Sturges definitely keeps us entertained, starting with the sweetly acerbic romance between Sullivan and a cool Veronica Lake, as The Girl (“How does the girl fit into the picture?” a cop asks Sullivan after the two are arrested. “There's always a girl in the picture,” Sullivan responds. “What's the matter, don't you go to the movies?”)

There’s also plenty of physical humor, wonderful faces to look at, and vivid minor characters to savor, most of them played by great character actors (and Sturges staples) like Eric Blore and William Demarest.

And there’s all that invigorating talk. It’s glorious stuff, that talk, and it’s democratically doled out. The central message of the movie is delivered by one of Sullivan’s butlers, in a gem of a speech that starts with: “The poor know all about poverty, and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.” The dialogue never sounds forced or overwritten, either – except when it’s supposed to, as in Sullivan’s preachy speeches about “this cockeyed caravan.”

But Sturges is after more than mere entertainment, despite his movie’s ostensible message. By wrapping his comedy around a reminder of the travails of those “forgotten men,” he tells a story that’s more complicated, and ultimately deeper, than any Sullivan ever dreamed of.

Every so often, Sturges shifts gears too suddenly or revs his engine too hard. A stint Sullivan serves on a chain gang and a paternalistic bit in an African-American church might have been lifted from one of Sullivan’s message movies, and I find a bit of slapstick whose punch line is a black man in whiteface uncomfortable to watch.

But those moments stand out because the rest of the movie unspools so effortlessly. Often shooting on location, Sturges works the struggles of poor people into the background of his picaresque story, making his point best when he says the least about it. One long, wordless sequence in which Sullivan and The Girl walk through a shantytown is a stunner.

Like a favorite uncle, Sturges is onto your foibles and can laugh them all off. Sullivan’s Travels tells us a lot about a particular place and time, but it also has plenty to say about life here and now.

Sturges’ barbs about Sullivan’s pompous aspirations still feel pointed, since the same earnest paternalism infects Hollywood today. And his affectionately ironic take on human nature and American hokum fit right in too – as do the bits of self-reflexive business he works into this movie about making movies.

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