Films about the movie industry are always interesting, but “Sullivan’s Travels” is in its own special niche in the show-biz comedy genre. The premise is about a successful musical comedy director who wants to make a serious picture about human suffering. The film opens with a dedication to the memory of clowns, buffoons — anyone who has dedicated their life to making people laugh. What do you think he will learn at the end of this story? It’s not revealed with the most impressiveness, but few themes ring as true as this film’s, especially to anyone with a love of the movies, especially classics.
Conceived during the Great Depression and premiering at the very beginning of World War II, what an important picture. “Sullivan” champions comedy, portrays Hollywood with a sense of humor yet asks it to look in the mirror and celebrates the golden age of Hollywood that came before it with numerous classic techniques.
John McCrea is John Lloyd Sullivan, a pictures director that wants to make a film of substance — he wants to adapt “O Brother Where Art Thou” (a title most cleverly used by the Coen brothers in their 2000 film) but his producers want … a little bit of sex. They tell him he knows nothing of human suffering and has no business making that kind of film. Sullivan sees it as a challenge and decides he’ll dress like a hobo and learn for himself in order to make his picture.
Try as he might to escape his Hollywood entourage, the humor of “Sullivan” is that Sullivan can never manage to escape Los Angeles. In the beginning he tries to shake them in a high- speed chase; one of the funnier and more classic scenes of the film. He’s in a go-kart of sorts with a 13-year-old and his friends in a giant caravan.
Along the way he meets a girl (Veronica Lake) who shows him some kindness and then when they’re thrown in jail and bailed out by his producers, he reveals himself rather quickly. She takes a liking to him, however, and they dress as hobos together jumping on train cars the next time out.
The brilliance of Preston Sturges’ story and script — aside from his punchy dialogue — is that despite it’s sincere message, it is not a drama about a guy trying to make a drama after years of comedies, but it’s a comedy. It’s not the funniest thing you ever saw and it hits you right over the head with just about everything instead of drawing it out and making it a bit more epiphanic, but it serves up a pristine reminder of what it’s about through use of the comedic techniques it champions.
If you love film — namely the classics — “Sullivan’s Travels” will find a way to your heart somehow. It’s a really perceptive film for 1941, a genre rarity in those days truthfully, and it celebrates what at least one genre of film is all about.
Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
Written and directed by Preston Sturges
Starring: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake