Turner Classic Movies (TCM) delivered an early but delightful Christmas present late this past week, a showing of Sullivan’s Travels. While I was laid up with a nasty cold, I managed to catch their showing of this little-known Preston Sturges classic starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake.
Sturges was an early director/producer active in Hollywood in the 30’s 40’s. He took the screwball comedy of the 30’s and sharpened it, paving the way for the sharper social satires of Billy Wilder, and the broader comedies of Joel and Ethan Cohen. Sullivan’s Travels is considered to be among Sturges’ best. While I’ve heard of Preston Sturges, I’d only seen his Miracle at Morgan Creek, and found it to be more slapstick absurdist than funny.
Such is not the case with Sullivan; I understand the reason for the critical praises (including Pauline Kael’s) and this film has quickly become one of my favorites as well.
The plot is actually quite simple: Louis Sullivan, a successful Hollywood producer (Joel McCrea) of comedies wants to do “more”, produce a serious movie. He doesn’t know how, never having known hardship or affliction in his life. Sullivan’s solution, then, is to go out in the world, disguised as a hobo.
Ironically, his travels keep taking him back to Hollywood, where, still in disguise, he encounters the Girl (Veronica Lake) who befriends him. Eventually, Sullivan is finally able to “disappear”, getting more than he bargained for. Telling more would spoil the story to those who’ve not seen it before.
By 1941, McRea was established as a movie star, and he proves himself to be very much in command of his scenes. The real news, though, is for Veronica Lake. This film is one of her first, and cemented her reputation as a glamorous presence, her trademark peek-a-boo hair very much in evidence.
For those who wonder about her legacy, go look at Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? She brings an interesting mixture of sultry and earthy in her performance, a charged sexiness which makes sparks fly in her scenes with McRea.
Sullivan’s Travels was made during a peak of creativity from Sturges and he’s very much in charge; his comic moments are broad and low-brow, but they’re organic, arising from the story line. His moments of social commentary are more powerful because of that; a scene in a homeless camp, while brief, remains haunting. This is 1941, and the US is struggling out of a depression, right before we were dragged into WWII, so the social circumstances were dire, similar to what we face today.
But Sturges’ message is not a social one; it’s not one of voting for (or against) a certain belief or person. Rather, Sturges, through Sullivan, sees something that he can do, and do well. And does it.
See the movie to find out, and take it to heart.