#146. Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

When I hosted the first Thousand Movie Project public screening it was for A Night at the Opera, a Marx Bros comedy from 1935, and I gave what strikes me now as a kind of embarassingly long-winded introduction about how the country was pining for comedies at the time, it was the middle of the Great Depression, and I talked about how seriously the Marx Bros took their craft: traveling the country and basically acting out the whole movie live on stage so they could see which gags worked and which didn’t, and only then, after pruning the script accordingly, setting the thing to film. I talked about how, apart from being professionals, the urgency and desperation of the times probably foisted an added sense of importance to what they were doing: making people laugh, distracting them from their troubles for a while. Noble stuff.

sullivan's travels opening
This opening picture suggests something like the book cover for Grapes of Wrath — the sort of heavy social story about struggle and abject poverty that Sullivan wants to emulate.

And while I was feeling a bit cringy about the whole spiel over the next few weeks (even though it was well-enough received by an audience comprised more or less entirely of very forgiving friends) I eventually came to see Sullivan’s Travels, one of writer/director Preston Surges’s seven great successes (sandwiched by The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story), as a kind of vindication of everything I was prattling on about that night: times are tough, and to make a person laugh is a noble thing indeed.

Te movie’s about a filmmaker named John Sullivan (Joe McCrea) who decides he wants to make a weighty movie about the human condition and the cruelty of the universe — it’s reminiscent of a scene in one of Woody Allen’s later-period movies, Anything Else, where, as the comedian-mentor to a young Jason Biggs, Allen’s character talks dismissively about how he too, as a young man, was consumed with weighty topics (God, death, the universe) but gave them up when he realized he oughta “stick to the jokes. That’s where the money is.” (Allen went through a phase in the 1980s and early ’90s where he tried to make a bunch of serious dramas: Husbands & Wives, September, Another Woman. He got shit for it every time. People telling him — as he parodies in Stardust Memories: “I love your films. Especially the early funny ones”).

Anyway. So Sullivan wants to make these heady movies that’ll reflect the turmoil of the times and his colleagues implore him to stick with comedy (that’s where the money is). They remind him that he lives in a gilded Hollywood bubble. What does he know of the hardships of life?

sullivan's travels poster
The posters make a sensation of Veronica Lake, who plays a big role as Sullivan’s love interest but doesn’t factor largely into the movie’s message. Also, according to a Sturges biography, she lived up to her reputation of forgetfulness. Needed lines fed to her in almost every scene.

Sullivan agrees. He hasn’t led the sorta life that might allow for such a movie. Gets sullen for a while but then says, fuck it, I’ll go out and get in adventures and learn firsthand what it’s like to face the hardships of life. So he ties a little sack to the end of a stick and props it on his shoulder — making himself into a caricature of a vagabond, showing just how estranged he is from reality — and sets out on foot to have some troubling, noble, enlightening adventures.

But he keeps finding himself back in Hollywood. He can’t get away from the luxury. All roads lead back to it. Then, in a freak act, he hits a cop with a rock and gets sentenced to a chain gang. And suddenly the movie gets really dark and dreadful. There’s this whole long segment with his trial, and then him in the camp, trotting along through the swamp with his fellow prisoners. Suffering. Some theaters apparently refused to even show it on account of its grimness. Weirdly, I think it might even be more bleak than I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.

Then one night Sullivan and all the other guys on the chain gang are taken to a nearby church where, as an act of charity, they’re gonna show a moviepicture for the prisoners. Try to life these guys’ spirits a bit.

This is after we’ve been subjected to the horror of their struggle for like the past fifteen minutes.

So it’s nighttime, they’re all sweaty and dirty and shuffling into the church with heads bowed after another day of labor, and the environment feels muggy, hot, miserable. They file into the pews, the pastor and an assistant wheel a projector into the aisle, and they start the picture.

It’s a cartoon. A comedy in whose production our hero apparently played some role.

sullivan's travels laughAnd as it unfolds we see that the men who shuffled in here looking so dour, so defeated, are suddenly laughing. They’re in hysterics. Crying and grabbing their sides and thrashing back and forth. Time of their lives. Heave ho. Maybe it’s a bit heavy handed, and yeah the guy who plays Sullivan cannot simulate a believable belly laugh to save his life, but it does a beautifully effective job of making its point. These are men in a terrible, soul-killing situation. And here’s a funny movie offering them a few minutes of precious reprieve from that condition.

So anyway — one thing leads to another and Sullivan’s exonerated, goes home to his beloved and to his studio colleagues, and when he gets back into his usual digs he finds that his weighty, philosophical, woe-is-the-human-condition movie — the one he’d been talking about in the beginning — has been greenlit. Everyone’s excited to imagine what hardships he’s faced and how primed he must be to make a gripping drama about it all.

But Sullivan wants no part of it. He wants to jump right away into the production of something hilarious. His colleagues are wondering what the fuck, what’s with this change of heart, and we leave him on the wonderful line:

“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.”

Douglas McGrath wrote a nice piece in Vanity Fair about the famous stretch of seven great movies that Sturges directed between 1940 and 1944, before his talent seemed to leave him. He mentions int he essay that, having recently watched those seven movies in quick succession, what he noticed is how Sturges’s voice, his attitude about America, is a sharp contrast to the likes of peers like Frank Capra and John Ford, dudes who extolled American persevereance, a kind of chipper up-by-the-bootstraps American spirit. He suggests that the mood and voice of Sturges’s films, by comparison, is like a wink. Like, We’re all big on virtue here, sure, but we’re all pretty aimless and silly. Like a nudge in the ribs, is how McGrath describes it.

sullivan's travels title card
Moviepicture opens with this beautifully foretelling intertitle.

And I’m digging  that voice a lot. I’m currently about halfway through Between Flops, a biography of Sturges by James Curtis, and Sullivan’s Travels is described in the book as a message movie that’s telling other movies to not have messages. And it’s interesting to go back to the beginning of Sturges’s career as a writer/director, when he worked on the stage, and he was so serious about the dramatic elements, would fight tooth and nail whenever somebody tried tinkering with his dialogue or whatever, and now, having achieved huge praise and success as a filmmaker, Sullivan’s Travels seems like a message from the older Sturges to the younger one, telling him to drop the pretenses, to not act as though this is all capital -A art, or that it’s all for posterity. It seems that, for all of Sturges’s obsession with reviews and for all that he invested his self-worth in other people’s opinion of his work, he really wanted to believe that he was writing and directing with the humblest of intentions.

 

Just entertain people for a little bit.

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