Joel McCrea is John Lloyd Sullivan, the very successful director of Hey, Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Pants of 1939 who has decided that he cannot continue making frivolous, light films in a world where Europe’s at war and where there’s so much unemployment and misery in America, not when he’s got the greatest educational tool ever invented by man at his disposal: movies!
He convinces his studio bosses to let him make ‘O Brother, Where Art Though?’, a film about the plight of the common people; realistic, pedagogical, depressing. ‘I want this picture to be a document! I want to hold a mirror up to life! I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!’ Nothing could terrify the movie moguls more, but Sullivan is so successful that they have no choice but to agree to let him make it, though he in turn concedes to put ‘a little sex in it’.
When the studio bosses point out that the reason he makes such light, optimistic and successful films is that he’s had a privileged life –what does he know about misery? — Sullivan decides to dress as a tramp, go on the road, and find out. At first everything conspires to bring him back to Hollywood, but then, just as he feels he’s done enough research and he’s out handing out dollar bills to those less fortunate than he who helped him on his quest, events conspire to send him to jail, put him in a prison chain-gang and teach him what real misery is really like. As he learns that, he also learns the value of the light, the frivolous – what joy, laughter and entertainment can bring to a world full of misery — i.e. he learns the value of his own work.
In many ways Sullivan’s Travels is a self-serving and self-affirming film, with Sturges and Hollywood patting themselves on the back for doing exactly what they’ve always done. But it’s also a marvelously entertaining film that shoots the audience with such a quick, smart, and witty spray of jokes that you might miss out if you’re not quick on the uptake. It’s great to see a film that assumes each individual member of the audience is the smartest and brightest person in any room.
Sullivan’s Travels successfully satirises Hollywood and the audience’s own trivial sentimentalising of the poor whilst offering quite a critique of: Hollywood’s pretensions; the issue of class in America; the inadequate system of poor relief, with prayer often being the price – non-negotiable – of a floor to sleep in and a bite to eat; and the brutality of prison chain-gangs. It might even have tried to critique race, certainly the NAACP commended it in 1942; though what the film does on this score now sits a bit uncomfortably.
David Thomson has written that ‘Sullivan’s Travels falls flat when it tries to move from comedy to pathos.’I’m not sure I agree with him. Firstly, I don’t think the film sets out for pathos. It tries to reveal poverty and injustice, to make the audience aware of it, but not to induce pathos, or at least not until Sullivan himself is imprisoned and seems to have no way out. Until then, we see the misery from the outside; from Sullivan’s eyes, but the eyes of an outsider whose experiences are purely optional; and the jokes, the winks, the acknowledgment that even your brothers in the soup-kitchen can steal the very shoes from your feet unless you have eyes in the back of your head and can see whilst sleeping, all take priority over the arousal of emotion.
Pathos has no bigger enemy than laughter. But it’s Sturges choice not his lack. Personally, I rejoice in that choice. When McCrea, feverish and trembly from illness, reiterates his convictions as if a spirit of daffy do-gooding giddiness has taken hold of him in Church — ‘nothing is going to stop me. I’m going to find out how it feels to be in trouble. Without friends, without credit, without checkbook, without name. Alone’ — he’s irresistible; as close to reaching the endearingly irrational heights of the great screwball dames (Colbert, Hepburn, Lombard) as any male actor except for Cary Grant.
Andrew Sarris indirectly touches on this and attributes it not only to McCrea but also to Sturges. In fact he sees it as a characteristic of Sturges’ work: ‘It is as if his characters were capable of being lit from within by the cartoonist’s device of the instantly ignited light-bulb in the hero’s skull. Joel McCrea’s movie director in Sullivan’s Travels experiences and expresses such a flash of practical creativity at the stirring moment in the film when he proclaims himself to be his own murderer’. Although I don’t quite agree with Thomson that the film falls flat when it moves from comedy to pathos, the film’s various changes in tone and register, seem to catch the audience by surprise.
There are those who delight in the surprise. Steven J. Schneider in his appreciation of the film in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die has written that the script is a tour de force and ‘brings together a remarkable range of genres, including slapstick, action, melodrama, social documentary, romance, musical and prison movie.’ But there are also others who have found in these shifts, a loose and shambly shapelessness. Manny Farber called Sullivan’s Travels ‘immature in its philosophy, formless and without a single discernible characterization; but it had an astonishing display of film technique.’
We can agree on the philosophy and on the astonishing technique; but as to the rest, I’ve already mentioned McCrea and his performance as Sullivan and I find the film formally clever too, beginning at the end of an ‘entertainment’ with a fight scene on a train that’s still thrilling, and later, near the end, signaling clearly to the audience that the film is at a turning point and that it needs to unravel the tangle of plot its gotten itself into before the closing credits. The montage with which it does so is a marvel of narrative economy that can still thrill those who are interested in visual story-telling.
Veronica Lake is ‘The Girl’. She’s given no name. And this might have been part of why Farber accuses the film of ‘lacking characterization’. However, ‘The Girl’ is a function rather than a character and thus needs no name and no characterization, though Veronica Lake is a very memorable look and presence in it. Moreover, she matches up with McCrea beautifully, the disparity in their height alone creating an element of comedy that doesn’t intrude on the romance needed to put ‘a little sex in it’. It’s also joy to see all the Sturges stalwarts: William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore and other wonderful comic actors who would have been just as famous to audiences of the period as the stars.
There are scenes that still linger in the mind: the opening sequence, the sex-starved sister locking McCrea in his room, the first real experience of a Hooverville, the black parishioners singing ‘Let My People Go’, the pettiness of the bureaucrat in the train station, the injustice of the court, the brutality of the chief of the chaing-gang.
Sturges achieves what the film says on one level isn’t possible; a film that both documents and critique its time — brimming with social relevance — that teaches us a lesson on the social conditions of the Depression, the filmmaking practices of the Hollywood of the period and on how brilliant and bright American comedy once was – directed by one of its greatest practitioners — but with some feeling, thrills, chills, lots of laughs ‘and a little sex in it’.
*** Film buffs might be interested in knowing that, according to Pauline Kael, ‘Sturges himself can be glimpsed behind Veronica Lake on a set inside the movie studio’.