Sullivan´s Travels elaborates a whole theory of film aesthetics right from its opening scene. The film begins by showing us the ending of another film. John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is so inspired by what he´s just seen that he lectures the studio heads, ´See the symbolism of it? Capital and labour destroy each other! It teaches us a lesson, a moral lesson. It has social significance!’
To Sullivan, the movies should be political and socially engaged: ´This picture´s an answer to communism! It shows we´re awake and not dunking our heads in the sand like a bunch of ostriches! Sullivan wants his picture to be a commentary on modern conditions, stark realism, the problems the confront the ordinary man, even if he concedes ‘with a little sex in it’.
His theories are almost a precursor to those of Bazin and Italioan neo-realism. He wants the picture to ‘be a document, to hold a mirror up to life…a true canvas of the suffering of humanity.’ The opposite of this is musicals. But how dare the studio head talk about musicals at a time when ´the world is committing suicide, with corpses piling up on the street, with grim death gargling at you from every corner’….I meant to summarise but the dialogue is just too good.
The studio heads counter that maybe they´d like to forget all of that, the conclusion Sullivan himself will come to by the end of the film. Sullivan wants to do something dignified, something to be proud of, something that would ‘fulfil the potentialities of film as the sociological and artistic medium that it is’. Sullivan has so far been making ‘So Long Sarong’, ‘Hey, Hey in the Heyloft’, ‘Ants in Your Pants of 1939’. Now he wants to make ‘O Brother Where Art Though’ about tramps, lockouts, people eating garbage in alleys, living in piano boxes and ashcans. Until now Sullivan has been making films about ‘nice clean young people who fall in love, with laughter, music and legs’. The opposite of his current conception of film art with its critique of current conditions, holding the mirror up to society, fulfilling the potentialities of the medium itself. But for Sullivan conditions have changed. ‘There isn´t any food, there isn´t any work, these are troublous times’. Yet, art has to be about what the artist knows.
Sullivan doesn´t know about trouble. That´s why his previous pictures were ‘so light, so cheerful, so inspiring’. But Sullivan will go on the road to learn about poverty and pain, and what the film tells us he will learn is that what people need most is a good laugh. But the whole thing has been a bit of a kid: whilst delineating a whole philosophy of what film art should be, the example that´s been held up to us, the last scene of the film that starts this film, is an action sequence of a moving train, not Keystone cops, not a musical, not ‘laughter, music and sex,’ . But it also certainly has not been a Capraesque critique with symbolism and social significance, no mirror up to the world that fulfils the potentialities of the medium. Sullivan´s learned a lesson but Sturges had his answer from the very beginning. He´s all for ´kiss kiss, bang ban, pow pow’, a pratfall or two and as much laughter as he can cram in the picture. For Sturges it´s not just that entertainment trumps art but that it is art, something that is at least certainly true of his own work.