Hit The Road

The Blu-ray release of Sullivan’s Travels gives Fiona Pleasance a chance to revisit a forgotten classic.   Sullivans-Travels_header

Since the turn of the millennium, if Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels has been famous for one thing, it’s as the answer to a film pub quiz question: “Where does the title for the 2000 Coen Brothers movie starring George Clooney come from?”. Sturges’ original concerns the intellectual and moral crisis of a film director, played by Joel McCrea, in the Golden Age of Hollywood’s studio system. Having become famous for directing hugely successful comedies like Ants in your Plants of 1939 and Hey, Hey in the Hayloft, the college-educated, privileged and wealthy John L. Sullivan wants to leave all that behind him and make movies with meaning.  His next putative project is therefore to be an adaptation of Sinclair Beckstein’s socially critical novel O Brother Where Art Thou?; think “Grapes of Wrath”-era Steinbeck.  Ultimately, Sullivan opts not to make that movie after all, so the Coens kindly jumped in and did it for him sixty years later. Of course, being the Coens, they don’t remotely make the movie Sullivan intended, though there are several thematic and visual references to Sturges’s film somewhere in the mix.

Arrow Films’ release of Sullivan’s Travels, on Blu-Ray in the UK for the first time, is a welcome opportunity to take another look at the original movie and its creator. In his heyday, which really just encompassed four years and seven movies, Sturges was one of the most financially and critically successful of all the directors of the Hollywood Studio System, as well as being the first to receive a ‘written and directed by’ credit. Indeed, an article in Vogue magazine in 1944 went so far as to say that “…Lubitsch and Hitchcock, each with the stamp of a great personality on his work, are names not half as familiar to the public [as Preston Sturges]”.1

Strange, then, that of the biggest directors of the age – and let’s expand the list to include Capra, Hawks, Ford, Chaplin (who in 1940 released only his fourth feature in 12 years) and even Welles (Citizen Kane came out in 1941, the same year as Sullivan’s Travels) – Sturges is probably the least familiar to contemporary audiences.  The fact that Sturges’s movies share characteristics and attitudes which seem very modern – postmodern, even – makes this even more surprising. Yet he remains something of a cult for cineastes, with none of the wider brand recognition his peers enjoy.

Possibly this is because the proponents of the Auteur theory of cinema didn’t think much of Sturges, despite his being an “author” in the truest sense; a director who wrote his own screenplays. Andrew Sarris once commented that “…he may have contributed more to the American language than to the American cinema”2, and it is true that Sturges’s clever narratives and famously fast, smart, witty dialogue seem to provide the primary motors of his movies, superseding the stylistic flourishes that Auteurists love so much. It has been argued that Sturges was keeping things simple deliberately, and that his modest, unobtrusive style was used consciously so as best to support the dialogue. Certainly, adding, say, flashy camera angles to that repartee, the gag-rate and his everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink slapstick could easily have proved too much.

Preston Sturges started his artistic career as a playwright on the East Coast in the early 1930s, but travelled to Hollywood as soon as possible, shortly after the talkies arrived. He gained a reputation as a hot-shot screenwriter, with his original script for The Power and the Glory (filmed in 1933) – a famous precursor of Kane in terms of narrative structure – cementing his reputation.  By 1939, unhappy with how, in his eyes, his work was suffering at the hands of others, his reputation was such that he was able to persuade Paramount to let him direct his own screenplay for The Great McGinty for next to nothing (studio publicity claimed he was paid $1 for direction; actually it was $10, for legal reasons).  He won the first Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the movie and his directorial career took off.

Like most Sturges movies, Sullivan’s Travels packs a lot into its brisk, 90-minute running time. The movie starts with the end of another film, which turns out to be the latest directorial effort of John L. Sullivan, known to all as Sully. The studio’s most successful director of comedies wants to make dramas now, “a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!”  Stung by the studio chiefs’ accusation that his privileged background has sheltered him from the problems that confront the average man all his life, he borrows a hobo outfit from the studio costume department and hits the road. There follows a riotous bus chase, after which he manages to shake off the studio entourage following him, and a strange interlude where he finds work with a lonely widow and her sister. This sequence has three things going for it: an affectionate send-up of the cinemagoing experience; a lovely series of sight gags with a portrait; and Joel McCrea with his shirt off.

A topless Joel McCrea, because we can.

Back in Hollywood by mistake, Sully meets a young woman in a diner, played by Veronica Lake (the character doesn’t have a name and is referred to as “The Girl” in the script). She resolves to go with him on his journey, and they jump onto a train heading East. After an interlude when they actually succeed in living like hobos, Sully meets up with his entourage again and declares the experiment over. That evening he takes to the streets one last time to distribute $5 bills to the poor as a sort of thank-you. A series of misadventures lead to Sully being presumed dead by the studio and the press when he has actually ended up in a labour camp in the Deep South.  But it’s no surprise that it all works out in the end, with Sully and the Girl reunited and on their way back to Hollywood, again – to make comedies. Because Sully has learned that what the average man needs most of all is to have a laugh.

Sullivan’s Travels was the fourth film that Sturges directed (after McGinty, Christmas in July, and the classic screwball comedy The Lady Eve), but it was the first of his movies not to be based on work begun before he became a director. In one of those classic Hollywood production schedules that make your head spin, Sturges started writing in early February 1941; shot the film between mid-May and mid-July; and edited it in August and September for a December 1941 release.3 His affection for, and bemusement with, the film industry saturates the movie.

While it’s very tempting to see the portrayal of John L. Sullivan as autobiographical, it is probably unwise to take this analogy too far. In mentioning Sully’s youthful masterpieces, Sturges may even be referring to Welles; David Bordwell has recently written about similarities in the two men’s approach. Unlike his protagonist, no crisis of conscience is ever discernable on Sturges’s part: this guy knows exactly what he’s doing, which is teasing those who work in Hollywood pretty mercilessly, be they studio bosses, entourages, or (for most of the movie) Sully himself.  The only characters who are not made fun of are those trying to make an honest living, above all Sully’s butler Burrows, played by Robert Greig, and Veronica Lake’s Girl, who Sully meets when she has just decided to give up on and acting career in Hollywood and head back home.  Greig is given a moving speech in which he attempts (unsuccessfully) to give his employer a sense of what he is letting himself in for while criticising the sort of ‘poverty tourism’ the trip entails. Lake’s character is witty, down-to-earth, and refreshingly cynical, and she is a vital influence on Sully; things only really go wrong for him when she isn’t around.

Yes, that's Veronica Lake.
Yes, that’s Veronica Lake.

The satire in Sullivan’s Travels is not limited to the film industry, however.  Sturges even manages to parody the very genre in which the movie is ostensibly located: the road movie.  The joke in the early part of the film is that, however hard Sully tries, he doesn’t actually manage to go anywhere – either his entourage is following him in a big, luxury bus, or the lifts he hitches end up back in L.A. while he is asleep. However hard he tries at first (and, to be honest, it’s not particularly hard) he can’t escape Hollywood.  And when he finally does succeed, the trouble really starts.

Actually, Sturges is taking us on a journey not primarily by road or rail, but through different genres. The first trips Sully undertakes are in a slapstick comedy, and include a raucous bus chase.  When Sully meets The Girl we move into a screwball comedy, with all of the genre conventions that implies: witty repartee, a pair who fall in love despite themselves, and a short spell in jail.  Soon the couple’s travels take them into something like a Great-Depression-era drama slash melodrama, including a seven-minute sequence without any dialogue.  Finally, in “…one of the most famous bait and switch routines in Hollywood history”4 we leave humour behind and resurface in a quintessentially 1930s genre, the Social Problem Film. The scenes where Sully is sentenced to join a chain gang in a labour camp are quite tough going, but it is important that the figures on screen, including Sully, all start laughing at exactly the point when the audience is least likely to want to join in.

The journey narrative is a Hollywood staple, and according to the Hero’s Journey our leading man must hit rock bottom – must die, at least symbolically – before he can atone and return to where he started. Sully’s sojourn in the camp sweatbox is followed by his epiphany at the movie screening: that humour is at least as if not more important than stark realism. Now he just has to find a way back to his “normal” life to follow through on this revelation.

In the end, Sully tells his studio bosses that “I don’t want to make O Brother Where Art Thou?  …And I say it with some embarrassment“. This, combined with the film’s dedication “…To the memory of those who make us laugh… whose efforts have lightened our burden a little…”, highlights the real message intended by the film’s creator. We can also see it in Sully’s two contrasting trips to the movies. In the first, dressed in a dead man’s suit and watching melodramas, he looks miserable; even the audience is more entertaining than what’s on screen.  In the second, watching Playful Pluto, he laughs and looks happy almost for the first time in the picture, despite himself.  By moving us away from comedy, Sturges has shown us how much nicer it is.

In a Hollywood where Drama has always been the big hitter, the preserve of Sober Social Commentary, the winner of the most Oscars, Sturges wants to stick up for the genre that nobody takes as seriously because its primary purpose is “just” to entertain.  And, more or less coincidentally, in doing so he provides the best possible justification for his own brief but sparkling comedy career.

The Arrow Blu-Ray version of Sullivan’s Travels is out now and comes with extras including a chatty commentary by Python and director Terry Jones; the 1990 PBS documentary Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer; two new hour-long documentaries about the director and his repertory company of actors; and a collector’s booklet.  The film itself is a new HD digital transfer with uncompressed 2.0 audio.

Footnotes

1. Quoted by Alessandro Pirolini in “The Cinema of Preston Sturges”, 2010
2. Quoted by Alessandro Pirolini in “The Cinema of Preston Sturges”, 2010
3. “Sturges at Work”, Brian Henderson, ‘Film Quarterly’, Vol. 39 No. 2, Winter 1985-86
4. “Sullivan’s Travels and the Popular Front”, Kathleen Moran and Michael Rogan, ‘Representations’, No. 71 (Summer 2000)

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2 thoughts on “Hit The Road

  1. This is awesome! When I was reading it I had a horrible thought: who exactly is like Sturges these days? And the first name that sprung to mind: Woody Allen! :-( but it’s kind of right, isn’t it? But anyway I think simply he has never been that well known because he is a writer, and nobody cares about the writer. Do you remember back in the day when Channel Four used to run a series of films every day in the early morning in the holidays? Well they had a Fred and Ginger run, a Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald run (can you imagine!) and also a Sturges one. So anyway sometime around summer 1991 I had a whole week of Sturges. :-)

    1. If you watch the start of Stardust Memories it’s really like Sullivan. I haven’t seen either recently enough to give any examples now, of course, but I remember seeing it (Stardust) and going like ‘It’s exactly the same! With a little sex!’ – I think both start with a fake film and then explaining why he doesn’t want to make comedy movies any more. This post would work better if I’d seen either of them in the last 15 years.

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