Sullivan’s Travels was written and directed by Preston Sturges, a man known for his comedy (The Lady Eve, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.) In the case of Sullivan’s Travels, the comedy it contains is more satire than slapstick. A
director known for his light comedies wants to make a “real” film about the
downtrodden in order to be socially relevant.
He learns a lot more about real life than he ever bargained for. Sullivan’s Travels turns serious in the last
act when he gets into big trouble. The
combination of the satire and drama worked for me.
John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a popular director of comedies without much more than fluff in them. He gets fed up and decides he wants to make a movie with some substance to it. He decides he’s perfect to make a film about the people who suffer every day just trying to live their lives – the ones who do not know where their next meal is coming from. Both Sullivan’s butler and his valet point out to him that he is the last person who would know what it was like to be living on the edge; he’s got a butler and valet for Pete’s sake. He’s not only rich now, but he came from a well-to-do family. He’s always had someone to take care of him.
In some ways this film parallels the prior film I reviewed – The Big Parade (1925). In that one a rich young man who knows nothing about real life decides to head off to war to have an adventure. He soon learns that war is, to use the popular quote, “hell”.
Sullivan is determined he’s going to make his film O Brother, Where Art Thou? – (Yes, the Coen brothers got the title of their 2000 film from here.) He heads out on the road, but with his people following him in case he needs any little thing. After several humorously aborted attempts he finally realizes he’s going about it all wrong.
He’s met a struggling actress (
during one of these failures and she helped him out before she found out he was
rich. He decides he really needs to
separate from his handlers and takes off for a few weeks with the actress. She disguises herself as a boy, they ride
trains like hobos, and he finally starts to see how the other half lives. Veronica Lake
Things turn serious, though, when he’s robbed and knocked unconscious while separated from the actress. He wakes up with no memory of who he is and attacks a man who he thinks is the one who attacked him. He ends up being sentenced to six years of hard labor. And his people are not looking for him because the man who robbed him of everything, including his clothes, was killed and the body was unrecognizable. Sullivan’s people recognize the clothes, though, and assume he is dead. No one is coming to Sullivan’s rescue.
I had not seen any other Preston Sturges’ films before this one, so I had no preconceptions going into it. I was really caught up in the final act, whereas I’ve read one review from a person who assumed going in that it was just going to be another comedy and figured nothing bad was really going to happen to any of the characters.
The only thing that didn’t work for me on this film is that I didn’t find
as a boy. It’s one of those things, like
glasses being enough of a disguise, that you just have to go with.
Lake didn’t do herself
any favors on this film. She got the
part, but didn’t tell Sturges she was pregnant.
When filming started and she showed up she was already at least six
months along. They had to film around
it. She ended up giving birth less than
a month after filming wrapped.
Reportedly, Sturges was furious.
He famously used many folks in several of his films (watch for some in
this one), but he never worked with Lake
In another parallel, the Coens included some scenes reminiscent of Sullivan’s Travels in their Depression-era Odysseus tale O Brother Where Art Thou, including three men trying to get on a train with some hobos, and having to live hand to mouth in order to survive.
Sullivan’s Travels is certainly not a must see, but it’s got some fun moments in it and some drama. You get to see
Veronica Lake as she was becoming a star and you also get to
watch an early satire of Hollywood. If these things sound interesting then I
recommend you give it a try.
Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars