Sullivan’s Travels laughs in the face of reinvention

Sullivan’s Travels laughs in the face of reinvention

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: To celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of another, we look back on films about new starts in life.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

As the encroaching awards season is sure to attest, it’s still common perception in the film community that comedy is for clowns—legitimate artists use drama and emotion to make their audiences feel something. Never mind that laughter is an emotional response, or that the best comedies—film and otherwise—have a sense of drama that would put the most desperate of prestige projects to shame. Few filmmakers from Hollywood’s golden age understood this like Preston Sturges. At the height of severity and austerity in American culture—pitched between the Great Depression and the United States’ entry into World War II—the writer-director made his comic masterpiece, Sullivan’s Travels. Joel McCrea stars as John L. Sullivan, a director seeking to reinvent himself with a weighty take on the fictional novel O Brother, Where Art Thou? (a title that resonated with the Coen brothers decades later) following success with farces like Hey-Hey In The Hayloft and Ants In Your Pants Of 1939. Unfortunately, college-educated, well-heeled Sully wouldn’t know hardship if it conked him on the head and stole his custom-made shoes, so he cooks up a scheme to do some firsthand research on the life of a tramp.

In addition to tweaking its hero’s artistic pretensions, Sullivan’s Travels shows keen insights into the absurd mechanisms of the Hollywood studio system. The director is permitted to undertake his ambitious research project, but only under the supervision of a caravan that includes a press agent, a physician, and a chef manning a fully stocked kitchen. Sullivan eventually ditches his escort, but he’s too accustomed to the cushy Tinseltown life to truly get away. It’s all part of the rich irony of Sturges’ script: Insulated from the worries of the real world, the “trouble” sought by McCrea’s character is the version he gets from the latest in socially conscious literature. The closed loop that keeps making a destination out of his departure point is a function of destiny and experience—and the outcome of a romantic subplot involving Veronica Lake as an actress having her own version of trouble in showbiz. It’s only when circumstance removes all the phony-baloney aspects of what Lake derides as the “noble experiment” that Sullivan gets to experience his reinvention. There’s that irony again; it’s also present in Sullivan’s climactic epiphany, in which McCrea’s sour-faced seriousness finally drops in favor of a grin. It’s the uplifting capper to an uproarious travelogue.

Availability: Sullivan’s Travels is available on DVD (which can obtained through Netflix) and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.