Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Written & Directed by Preston Sturges

Preston Sturges is a strange dog to me because he continually receives acclaim from critics and film buffs alike for great work and yet I have only seen one film of his. And what is more, I have hardly heard of any of his films, they aren’t ones I would have heard of before coming on board to the Filmspotting Forum. The one I have seen, The Lady Eve, is one that may sound vaguely familiar, but that is probably because there is also a film called All About Eve. But I did like that film if for no other reason than the greatness of both Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck. So for this film I once again experience Sturges as well as the graces of a great actress I have not seen before, Veronica Lake, who to me is just that one actress referenced in L.A. Confidential.

John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a big time Hollywood director known for his comedies, but he has become frustrated with his work and decides to make a picture about the struggle between capital and labor as a statement against communism. But his producers think otherwise and tell him to quick the message approach and just make a comedy. So Sullivan decides he is going to make a picture about the poor, and sets out to experience the life of a hobo. Along the way he encounters a young lady (Veronica Lake) who has tried to make it in Hollywood, but has not been given the chance she had hoped for. The two build a friendship and Sullivan soon finds out what he always new somehow: humor is universal and making people happy is more important sometimes than telling the grim reality to an audience that would rather laugh and be merry.

The idea behind the film is quite meta, and by that I mean self-referential. I usually love that kind of approach because in some strange way it is almost paying homage to itself, which could be seen as twisted or cocky in some ways, but I often film it to be hilarious and fascinating. This film does not go all the way, but it is certainly a film about the film being made within the film. Sullivan’s producer’s complain about the comedy world trying to put a message into every picture these days and want Sullivan to just make another comedy, which is also the message Sturges seems to be wanting to send given the opening message and the ending of the film. And yet in doing so, Sturges is making a film with a message. I can’t decide if I love this move or hate it, but I guess I definitely think it works.

But where it doesn’t work is the comedy. The idea behind the thought is great, but the execution is underwhelming. I did not find the film itself all that funny. The comedy really missed with me. I only chuckled once or twice and the only time I did laugh out loud was prompted by a scene near the end which featured footage not shot by Sturges. No, the funniest part of the film was a cartoon insert, which is problematic. Sturges made a film saying that people should just laugh, but he failed to make me laugh and had to use a third party to do so. Now that scene is great for showing the joy of simple laughter for people of all walks of life, because laughter, humor and comedy are universal, which is a beautiful thing

However, I was able to discover the amazing Veronica Lake for the very first time, which was a wonderful experience not dissimilar to when I saw Stanwyck for the first time in another Sturges film. Her presence manages to be understated and explosive at the same time. Unlike Stanwyck, I found Lake to be somewhat quiet on screen, which may have simply been a byproduct of her character, but her reserved nature put me at ease and drew me in to the performance. In addition to her beauty, her talent is first and foremost what I will take from this film. I enjoyed the adventure of it all, and the “message” is quite nice, but I was not instantly won over by this film. However, I have been told Sturges films grow on you, especially with repeated viewings, so maybe somewhere down the line I will change my mind.

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