Friday, February 8, 2013

Sullivan’s Travels (1941) **

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Preston Sturges is one of my favorite Classic Hollywood directors; I am especially fond of his The Lady Eve (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942). His brand of sophisticated comedy is risqué and witty, just like my other favorite director from the period: Ernst Lubitsch.  What I appreciate most about Sturges’ is his ability to successfully blend sophistication into a screwball comedy—that’s why I adore The Lady Eve. And, that is also why I was somewhat let down by Sullivan’s Travels (1941). Now, I’m not saying it’s not a good film—I just found it uneven. If I were a psychiatrist I would diagnose it as manic depressive. At times it is a warwick-mccrea-hallscrewball comedy and then it turns into a drama, and then it’s a comedy and then back to a dramatic social commentary. 

John L. Sullivan, aka Sully, (Joel McCrea) is a successful Hollywood director who specializes in lightweight comedies but longs to make movies about the human condition.  No more Ants in Your Pants for Sully—he wants the studio to back his O Brother Where Art Thou?  To prove he’s capable of telling an honest and powerful story about the sufferings of everyday people in the Depression Era, Sully decides to disguise himself as a hobo and live amongst them. However, the head of the studio (Robert Warwick) wants none of this and enlists a team to follow his prized director around in a RV.Copy_of_sullivan  Of course, this would never work, and so Sully gets them to leave him alone after an incredibly wild, slapstick chase scene that would have made the Keystone Cops green with envy. Soon after this he meets a young Hollywood ingénue (Veronica Lake) at a diner who buys him a cup of coffee and some ham and eggs.  Down on her luck and wanting to escape the perils of the casting couch, the girl (really, she’s never given a name) becomes his traveling companion.  Even after she learns who he really is and that he’s involved in a “noble experiment” she continues on the road with him to soup kitchens and shelters.  Eventually they return to Hollywood and seem to be destined for happiness (if he can ever get a divorce from his harpy wife [Jan Buckingham]), but things go awry when Sully is mugged by a hobo and believed to be dead. 

images (1)Okay, how can you start your film off with a rip-roaring, hilarious chase scene and then about halfway into the movie launch into a heavy social commentary about the hardships of the poor?  Heck, not only is it heavy, but it’s also silent.  That’s right, the master of witty repartee made a mini-silent film around the halfway mark of this movie.  Yes, it’s quite effective in conveying the despair of the downtrodden, but I thought this was supposed to be a comedy? What the hell?  And, then it goes back to being a comedy for a few minutes and the next thing I know Sully is working on a chain gang run by the father (Alan Bridge) of the Captain from Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Jess Lee Brooks is leading a black church congregation in singing “Go Down Moses” (i.e. the classic refrain, “Let My People Go”). Double what the hell? Can you see how 1tjavkowI found Sullivan’s Travels a tad uneven and in need of a bottle of lithium? I know Sturges was attempting to poke fun at the likes of Frank Capra and Leo McCarey, but he fell in league with them here with this script.  Perhaps this is why Sullivan’s Travels didn’t receive one single Oscar nomination.

Overall, the acting performances are quite good. McCrea is his usual even self, and I must admit, he does shine in the dramatic scenes.  Like any Sturges production, there are some stock character actors who steal several scenes. Robert Grieg and Eric Blore are delightful as tmb_2180_480Sully’s servants. They had some of the best lines in the film. I wish they’d been in more scenes—perhaps some of the ones in which Veronica Lake stood around doe-eyed and pouty.  Not long after she said, “Give him some ham and eggs,” I couldn’t get over the fact that I knew both Sturges and McCrea grew to despise her over the course of the production.  To say that her acting range was limited would be kind.

I think I would have liked Sullivan’s Travels more if it had been more Ants in Your Pants and less O Brother Where Art Thou?—of course, I don’t mean the Coen Brother’s 2000 film starring my husband, Mr. Clooney. They named their film that in honor of Sturges and this movie, though.  I agree about Sturges…a little less about Sullivan’s Travels, though. 

14 comments:

  1. I can see you points, but it is still my favorite Sturges film...I am probably more forgiving of it's deficiencies!! doctom666 from the CFU

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    1. Haven't see you in a while, Doc...how ya been? I know a lot of people love this film, but for money, The Lady Eve is the far superior. Come around more!

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  2. LOL.. Ants in Your Pants... That made me smile. I Have not seen this film in a long time. I think the whole reason for watching this movie is Mr. McCrea's performance. His chemistry with Veronica Lake is whats makes this film fun to watch.

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    1. They did have chemistry together, Dawn. Lake was a pretty girl who could deliver a wisecrack well, but she was so one-dimensional in this. Every time I watch this I can't help but remember the beginning, where Warwick keeps mentioning they need some sex in Sully's new picture. That's all Lake ever was as an actress. By far, this is McCrea's picture.

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  3. I liked this one a lot the first time I watched it. The more I've seen it, though, the more I realize just how heavy-handed it really is. I still like this film well enough, but it really is very forced.

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    1. I agree--I've had the same reaction over the years.

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  4. I've only seen Sullivan's Travels once, and the changes in tone didn't bother me. I was right with it during the silliness and thought the drama worked. It does take a pretty drastic tonal shift, so I do wonder there could be a case like Steve describes of it going down a bit on a repeat viewing.

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    1. I think that's probably what has lowered my esteem for the film over the years.

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  5. Kim, I like "Sullivan's Travels" more than I love it as I do "The Lady Eve" and "The Palm Beach Story." It is uneven, but its 'mood swings' don't bother me that much. Some call it THE Sturges masterpiece, but there I completely disagree - that would be "The Lady Eve."

    A while ago I posted a piece on Sturges and couldn't resist including a picture of him at his restaurant with Lubitsch. In it, Lubitsch dines as Sturges stands over him solicitously - I imagined some witty repartee passing between them.

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    1. Well, you obviously know we are in complete agreement about The Lady Eve being his masterpiece. I remember that article you wrote. One funny element about Sullivan's Travels is the director's mentioning of Lubitsch numerous times. I'm sure they both had a good laugh over it.

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  6. You are right of course about this being uneven. But even when he fumbles Sturges makes a funny movie. I can forgive a comedy much inconsistency as long as it funny, but he was stretching it here.
    I know too little of Veronica Lake to be able to say much about her, but I quite liked her in this one (but hey, I am a guy).

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    1. Yes, I expect men have a different reaction to Lake. LOL

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  7. Cannot agree with your assessment of this ambitious film or of Lake in it. BTW it's "Ants In Your Plants"

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    1. Thanks for the correction. We can't all agree.

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