Monday, June 29, 2015

Sullivan's Travels (1942)

Director: Preston Sturges


When many films attempted to construct a story to preach some sort of moral or profound message, attempting to be deeper than they actually are we are reminded that sometimes that it is the simple things that we enjoy the most. In this case it is the slapstick, silly jokes, and simple humor that are presented as the root of what comforts us through our tougher times. The picture Sullivan’s Travels was director Preston Sturges’ love letter to comedies, reminding audiences that a hearty laugh is what many of us need to help us break up our wearisome days and are true treasures for us to hold onto while living.

Sullivan’s Travels is a comedy about a movie director who pines to produce a socially significant drama, but is reminded that comedies are far more valuable to his audiences. A profitable director of narrow comedies, John L. Sullivan is determined that for his project he would like to produce an adaptation of a socially-conscience novel about the downtrodden and feels the only way he can understand the subject matter is to live out that lifestyle of a penniless drifter. Despite the troubles the movie studio gives Sullivan a half-hearted blessing where he is allowed to set out on his educational sojourn. While attempting to start his life of scarcity he befriends a failed actress (Veronica Lake) who, after learning who he is, joins Sullivan on his journey of living in shelters, hopping on train boxcars, and eating in soup kitchens while a relationship begins to blossom.

Through mishaps and mistaken identity Sullivan disappears and presumed dead by officials, while in truth he ends up in arrested serving in a labor camp after a short fit with amnesia. One night as a reprieve from the hard knocks of physical labor under the correctional system (essentially working a chain gang)he takes in a picture show with his fellow inmates where while watching a Mickey Mouse cartoon he sees how rewarding laugher is to these broken men. After Sullivan able to convince the jailors of mistaken identity Sullivan is released to great fanfare and the studio greenlights Sullivan’s intended project. However he declines the original intentions having learned that his comedies, his comedies in particular, are far more valuable to audiences as he sets out to continue to make audiences laugh.

The picture is surprisingly fresh and with its very natural dialogue and tones which was a gift of writer/director Preston Sturges. The satire comedy does not take itself seriously and adds a bit of goofball comedy in with the story of a man attempting to be inspired to take an intellectual step in his craft. In the end we get a humorous tale that remains enjoyable to watch decades later by audiences all over.

Preston Sturges was a unique figure in Hollywood as one of the first, if not the very first, screenwriter to be given the chance to direct his own scripts in the age when studios were factories and screenwriters and directors took their places at different times in the determined process in the projects. With this picture Sturges satires his on industry with a lighthearted comedy with a simple message that comedies are simple yet ever valuable entertainment to be treasured for it entertainment beyond that of the dramas he was seeing in the industry at the time. His gift with plotting words and coaxing natural performances from his key actors produce a film which his audiences would cherish, as well as inspiring others that would follow in his footsteps in the industry.

The portrayal of the impoverished is exaggerated in the picture to best suit the story, so do not take setting to seriously. After all, it is a comedy. This is the very point of the feature as it is a meant to be a simple picture produced in effort to entertain, not to creature any profound statement other than that.

 The film stars Joel McCrea  as the title character John L. Sullivan who is joined by Veronica Lake as the nameless female companion, a failed actress , as they discover the lives of the penniless and eventually fall in love. McCrea had a wonderful time working with Sturges on this project, which is evident in his performance and future appearance in Sturges’ next feature, The Palm Beach Story. However much could be said of Lake and the troubles she created for the film.

After Veronica Lake landed the role of “the girl” she showed up to the set of the picture only to have reveal she was six months pregnant. The fact that she did not inform the director or producers of her situation infuriated Sturges to the point of, legend states, having to be held back from charging after her in rage. Legendary costume designer Edith Head would have the task of masking Lake’s late pregnancy, which she does remarkably well, considering Lake would be up to eight months pregnant near the end of her filming schedule. Joel McCrea would find working with Lake entirely too frustrating, an unpleasant actress to work with, vowing to never work with her again. McCrea would turn down a future role in an upcoming movie due to the fact that Lake was starring in the feature keeping in with his word. The two would however be reunited in a later picture later in their careers. In any case Lake would gain a star status with the appearances of her signature hair that draped over her right eye that would inspire a style at the time.

When Sullivan’s Travels first released it was an immediate box office success, but found only generally positive critical reviews with some critics not caring for the plot and message of the story. However with time critics and film historians would come to praise the Sturges feature as it can be found on many all-time lists with some of the most cherished comedies and even best pictures in Hollywood history. From a contemporary point of view the film remains a classic that is held in high regard in American cinema history as one of the finest comedies, which reminds us all how laughter remains the best medicine when we are down.

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