Tuesday, March 26, 2013

SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS - REVIEW

Sullivan's Travels
December 1941
90 min
United States (English)

Written and Directed by Preston Sturges


"Sullivan's Travels" takes us on a folly journey to learn about hard life through a movie director's eyes. All the while we're reminded why escapist entertainment is a gift to cherish even if this film is not always capable of doing so.

Back on Episode 3: The Film Lovers on the Bridge of The Film Tome Podcast Trent and I discussed movies about movies. We didn't feel adequately experienced to present our Top 5 at that time. There were several titles I cam across in my research that I knew I need to catch up with. One such of those movies (about movies) that was frequently mentioned in lists all over the internet was "Sullivan's Travels." When I saw it was playing as part of a double-feature near me I jumped at the chance to finally see it for myself.

"Sullivan's Travels" begins with a climactic mano-y-mano fist-and-gunfight on top of a speeding train before one character is killed, falls of the train and into a pond below where "THE END" emerges from the rippling water. John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) and studio executives have just finished screening a film and this leads into a fantastic single-take conversation about what's next for Sullivan, a young and talented director in tinsel town. Whatever the idea for a movie one boss repeatedly reminds them, "But with a little sex!" Comedy is Sullivan's repertoire but he wants to adapt "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," a real hard-hitting story about the struggles of contemporary life and he wants to experience some of that himself before he begins production, much to the chagrin of his boss.

With literally only a dime in his pocket Sullivan sets off in full hobo garb to face a hard-knocks life until he finds what he's looking for. His boss and teamsters and never too far away, nor is Los Angeles... He winds up meeting a lovely face (easily supplied by Veronica Lake) at a diner. She tried her luck as an actress but is heading back home rather hopelessly. Sullivan convinces her to give it another try all while little-by-little revealing who he actually is. The two becoming road-tripping allies as they learn together what the tramp life is like. One stretch is a montage of their adventures and it plays as if a scene from a silent picture.

"Sullivan's Travels" begins with an interesting dedicatory card:

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.

The film itself is a comedy. McCrea and Lake are swell together, even if laughs aren't what these two are best at delivering (six years later the two would co-star in the highly recommendable Western "Ramrod"). Writer/director Preston Sturges is most well-known for his screwball comedy "The Lady Eve." The comedy at work here is similar but also relies on some good old slapstick. Sullivan being pushed in the pool is hardly funny (even if it was original then) nor when the gag is repeated on others again and again.

Would "Sullivan's Travels" make my list for movies about movies? No, though it certainly merits being in the conversation. While the main characters are filmmakers and there are a few movie-centered scenes (which are also the best of the the film) the majority is not about the movies but purposely about learning what life on the road holds is store for us. My favorite scene featured a chain-gang of prisoners marching throw a swampy marsh on the way to a church that is transformed into a theater for a night of entertainment (a Disney cartoon to be exact). When compared to an earlier in-theater scene the contrast could not be greater. The power to make the audience laugh is worthy of our respect and gratitude. While "Sullivan's Travels" is far from one of the funniest films it deserves accolades for exploring this idea while being a pretty great film itself.

"There's always a girl in the picture. What's the matter, don't you go to the movies?"
- John L. Sullivan



★★★★

CONTENT: some sexual references, thematic themes and brief violence

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