Sullivan's Travels

Sullivan’s Travels, Preston Sturges’ hilariously witty and profoundly sad masterpiece, follows a naive man with an unusual mission.  Played by the handsome and strapping everyman Joel McCrea, John L. Sullivan is an accomplished film director in the midst of Hollywood’s golden years.  Sullivan (“Sully” as he’s called with affectionate irritation by his overbearing producers) is disenchanted with the base comedies he’s assigned to churn out.  Instead, he wants to adapt O Brother, Where Art Thou? and segue into heftier films with true civic and social importance.  Not only do his producers find this idea to be dangerously close to Capra territory (“What’s wrong with Capra?!” Sullivan retorts), they rightfully point out that a life of boarding school followed by college followed by lucrative moviemaking hasn’t exactly prepared Sully to make a film about world suffering.  Point taken.  Perhaps this point is taken a little too seriously, as Sullivan instantly decides that a hiatus from the industry to live among the poor will be the perfect crash course for more serious cinematic endeavors.

And so Sully begins his travels, travels that fitfully start and stop for many an amusing reason.  The men with deep pockets are a little hesitant to let Sullivan leave the backlot nest, and in an overly protective measure they send studio paeons to keep an eye on him.  A flirtatious old biddy gives Sullivan a room for the night, only to lock him in the house in order to keep his “nice torso” around for a little longer.  After accidentally returning to Hollywood as a railroad stowaway, Sullivan meets The Girl (Veronica Lake, whose smashing pin-up looks belie her level-headed sarcasm).  In an act of pity, The Girl buys Sully ham and eggs, and Sully cannot help but break character and invite her back to his mansion.  Despite these distractions, John L. Sullivan does ultimately get his wish of seeing– and living– how the other, less privileged half live.  When, in the final act of the film, Sullivan is robbed, beaten, and left for a criminal on a chain gang, his bright-eyed Liberal notions of philanthropy wear thin.  Sullivan learns that playing homeless is only intriguing when he still has a home to return to.

What makes Sullivan’s Travels such a clever comedy is that it is so deftly in-tune with the very people it is poking fun at.  While many a film follows a poor man’s ultimately damned attempts to become successful (the gangster genre of the 1930’s is founded upon this notion), Sullivan’s Travels follows a rich man’s failed attempts to live among the penniless.  John L. Sullivan, powerful film director that he is, has a terribly difficult time winding up anywhere other than Hollywood.  And when he does make it to the open road with only a knapsack and his carefully-deliberated shoddy garments, a trailer of journalists and personal assistants follows closely behind.  Sullivan’s persistent desire to make a weighty, “meaningful” film reveals that a fascination with strife is actually a luxury of the rich and comfortable.

There are two lengthy sequences in Sullivan’s Travels which show Sullivan finally– after much ado– experiencing poverty first-hand.  The first comes at a midpoint in the film.  Sullivan and The Girl have convinced the slew of reporters and publicists to back off for a spell, and they set off on their own to slum it in the streets and homeless shelters of nameless American towns.  Set to the film’s lovely, Copeland-esque score, this wordless montage of cramped halfway houses, tattered clothing, and food remnants is deeply moving.  Yet it is very purposefully a romanticized, cinematic rendering of poverty.  When Sully and The Girl have had one too many sleepless nights and rotten meals, they simply return to Sullivan’s mansion to have their hair brushed to sheeny perfection and their ham and eggs cooked for them.  This first montage of poverty is without dialogue– and finished off with a glossy veneer of music– because it, like Sullivan and his companion, is removed from the actual desperation of strife. Of course a wealthy director would situate the destitute in an elegant montage.

But then the unplanned occurs.  Sullivan, having been thwacked over the head and rolled into an empty train car by a vicious hobo, finds himself actually having to endure the life he so wanted to capture through a camera lens.  The near-final sequence in which Sullivan is serving his sentence on a chain gang is not shown to us in a scored montage.  Rather, we hear the ferocious bark of his camp lieutenant and we see the sweat roll down Sully’s brow as he begs for water in the agonizing sweat box.  Most importantly, we hear him laugh with abandon at the goofy cartoon picture show the chain gang inmates are permitted to watch on Sundays.  The sweat, grunts and small moments of relief are fully realized in this second sequence because Sullivan, for the first time in his life, is truly without options.  With the loss of his money comes real desperation, and with the loss of his identity comes that cursed thing the wealthy never experience: anonymity.

The depressing force of anonymity proves to be the driving theme in Sullivan’s Travels.  It’s not accidental that Veronica Lake’s character is never introduced by name.  She is The Girl because she knows the hard knocks that just another pretty face has to withstand in Hollywood, and this is what has almost broken her by the time she meets Sullivan.  Similarly, Sullivan realizes the severity of his situation on the chain gang when no one will believe that he is actually a “big Hollywood director.”  When Sully has the ingenuity to get his picture in the paper, his producers recognize him, and that moment of publicity– of being singled out– is his savior.  Sullivan’s Travels closes with a gorgeous series of dissolves that show us various people’s faces as they laugh uproariously.  Some of these faces we recognize, and many we do not.  But as these faces of young and old, rich and poor alike chuckle and guffaw, it becomes clear that a sea of anonymous people can be united by the relieving power of laughter.  With this wise knowledge in mind, Sullivan decides to make his next film a comedy.