Thursday, January 8, 2015

Film Review: Sullivan's Travels

"Sullivan's Travels"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

We learn it is better to laugh than cry in the Preston Sturges comedy "Sullivan's Travels" (1941).

Life. What a miserable experience it is. War. Death. Poverty. Homelessness. Violence. Despair. This is what life is comprised of. And that's how Hollywood director John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) sees the world. There is conflict in Europe. High unemployment in America. And what is John Sullivan doing about it? Why, he is making musicals and comedies!

Sullivan believes his movies are out of fashion. The public is not in the mood for his light-hearted pictures. There is too much trouble in the world. Too much human suffering. The public wants to see realism. People want to watch movies that have social significance. So, Sullivan has decided to change course. His next picture will not be a typical comedy. Sullivan will direct a drama. A socially significant movie called "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

This causes an uproar at the movie studio Sullivan works for. The public expects comedy from Sullivan, not drama. Sullivan's comedies are safe and formulaic and make a profit. Why fix it, if it isn't broken? The studio wants Sullivan to make another comedy, with a little sex in it. Maybe they can even get Bob Hope or Jack Benny to star in it. But, Sullivan is determine to make a movie that comments on today's conditions. No more Hollywood escapism.

At this point in the story, writer and director, Preston Sturges, is commenting on the popular belief comedy has no value. There is no "social significance" in comedy. Drama is art. Drama is important. Cinema, the greatest form of artistic expression of the 20th century, should be used to tell powerful, emotional stories. Stories which convey the hardships of the world. Instead, how do we use cinema in America? We film baggy pants comedians getting hit with a pie in their face. How disgraceful! Where's the significance in that?

But, what does a rich, successful Hollywood filmmaker like Sullivan know about the plight of the poor? He never went to bed hungry. He attended boarding schools, was a successful director at 25 years old. He lives in a beautiful mansion with a swimming pool and a tennis court. He has a butler (played by Robert Greig, who spent most of his career playing butlers) and a valet (played by Eric Bore, a famous character actor at the time). How can he make a meaningful commentary on the poor and working class?

This is the argument the Hollywood studio head makes, in an effort to dissuade him from his dramatic effort. Alas, Sullivan must admit the facts. He doesn't know what it is like to be poor but he won't give up on "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" instead he has a brilliant idea, he will head out on the road, with 10 cents in his pocket, and live among the poor. He will find out the daily turmoil the poor must endure.

Preston Sturges was a comedy juggernaut in the early part of the 1940s, starting with his debut film as a writer and director, the political satire, "The Great McGinty" (1940), for which he won an Academy Award for his screenplay, up until 1944 with the release of "The Great Moment", the story of Dr. W.T. Morton, the dentist credited with using ether as an anesthesia. The movie was a box-office flop and ended his reign as a comedy king. Was "Sullivan's Travels", Sturges' fourth movie as a director, a comment on how Sturges felt about himself? Did Sturges feel he was wasting his time on comedy? Not necessarily. The movie is dedicated to those that make us laugh. "Sullivan's Travels" becomes a satire on those that feel the way Sullivan does.

Could Sturges also be making a comment on comedians that take themselves too serious? Whether it was Charlie Chaplin or Jim Carrey, comedians have usually been accused of having an affinity for pathos. Of wanting to prove themselves by acting in a drama. Those that are critics of Chaplin (it's such a shame people like that exist) point to his desire to want to be loved. Chaplin was too sentimental they say. Ironically that is what is missing from Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels". The movie needed more sentimentally to effectively pull off this project. Sturges, as brilliant as he was, is not able to perfectly blend comedy and drama at the heights Chaplin was. Chaplin also made a film that commented on the conditions of the working man, "Modern Times" (1936). Both, I feel, would make a nice double bill.

Like all Sturges comedies "Sullivan's Travels" displays the gift Mr. Sturges had in combining physical comedy and verbal comedy. The movie starts off with some great subtle jabs at the mentality of the Hollywood system. As Sullivan describes the kind of movie he wants to make, the studio head keeps injecting, "with a little sex in it", and of course, what has Mr. Sturges done for his part to make a movie with a little sex in it? He cast Veronica Lake in the female lead. We even get a few shots showing her legs (check out the movie's poster!).

The great verbal banter though is countered with sequences of broad physical comedy. There is a chase scene as a trailer speeds to catch up with a motorcycle, and causes chaos in the trailer, with dishes and food falling off of shelves and characters falling on top of each other.

Joel McCrea, who was also in Sturges' "The Palm Beach Story" (1942) and "The Great Moment", plays Sullivan as a naive, innocent man. A man that has led a sheltered existence. Others in the movie don't believe Sullivan is capable of being on his own. His character is off set by Veronica Lake (in her first role of significance), who is credited only as "The Girl", a young woman who came to Hollywood in the hopes of becoming a famous actress. She possesses the street smarts Sullivan lacks. There is also a hint of romance between them.

The rest of the cast is a roll call of great character actors of the 1930s & 40s, many of whom were regulars in Preston Sturges comedies. They include: William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall, Al Bridge and Esther Howard. Not to mention the already noted Eric Bore and Robert Greig.

One can fault Mr. Sturges by saying his view of the poor and the movie's ultimate message is too simplistic. "Sullivan's Travels" doesn't truly show us the hardship the less fortunate must face. Perhaps. But, like Sullivan, why should Mr. Sturges know about the poor? Still the movie does show moments when we see the extremes poverty will lead people to. The poor are shown as having violent tendencies. They are driven to stealing in other scenes. All in an attempt to survive. The problem is, we never get to know any of these people. Sullivan never befriends any of them. If you want to learn about how the poor live, why not talk to them while you are living among them?

Looking at the movie today, it is interesting the way it is marketed. For one, with the exception of the poster displayed here, most posters only feature Ms. Lake, as if she were the star. Perhaps a reflection of today's moviegoers who may only know her and not Joel McCrea. Also, the tagline, "Veronica Lake's on the take", would suggest this is a romance. It really isn't. What works best in "Sullivan's Travels" and what it is ultimately about, is its satirical nature. Not its romance. Even the movie's title is a reference to the novel "Gulliver's Travels", the political satire written by Jonathan Swift.

We can see the influence a movie such as this may have had on Woody Allen when he made "Stardust Memories" (1980), which was also about a comedy director that no longer wants to make funny pictures, though that movie was also influenced by the work of Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini and his film "8 1/2" (1963). And we can see how Mel Brooks was inspired by "Sullivan's Travels" when he made "Life Stinks" (1991), about a millionaire who lives alongside the poor. Even the Coen Brothers make reference to it by naming one of their comedies, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000), a depression era comedy starring George Clooney

"Sullivan's Travels" is a very entertaining comedy with a message. Mr. Sturges is aiming for the level of Chaplin with its depiction of the poor and sentimental moments. It is also a sharp satire on the movie industry and an attack on the snobbish attitude some have towards comedy. The movie also has a wonderful cast. Outside of a few minor complaints, this is near comedy perfection, with a little sex in it.