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'Sullivan's Travels'

Posted Tuesday, November 22, 2011, at 10:04 AM

Weeks ago, watching the preview of November highlights on Turner Classic Movies, I noted that they were going to show one of my all-time favorite movies, "Sullivan's Travels," on Nov. 22. I signed up for an e-mail reminder at the TCM site.

But a week and a half ago, when I went to set my DVR, I noticed that the schedule had changed and "Sullivan's Travels" was no longer there, either on the DirecTV schedule or the TCM web site. Strangely, TCM still sent me an e-mail reminder a week ago, even though the movie is no longer scheduled to air tonight. They need to tweak that system a bit.

I'm disappointed. Then again, I really ought to get "Sullivan's Travels" on DVD one of these days.

The movie was released in 1941 and was directed by the great screwball comedy director Preston Sturges, who also created "The Lady Eve" and "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek," all hysterically funny. It's the story of movie director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), who has spent the 1930s cranking out musical comedies like "Hey Hey in the Hayloft" and "Ants In Your Pants of 1939." But Sullivan is restless. He wants to make a Serious Film about poverty and class struggle and social justice and has picked out a "Grapes of Wrath"-style novel to adapt. (If you're a Coen Brothers fan, you'll be amused by the title of that made-up novel, which the Coens appropriated for an actual movie.)

John L. Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!

LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.

John L. Sullivan: A little, but I don't want to stress it. 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!

LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.

John L. Sullivan: [reluctantly] With a little sex in it.

Hadrian: How 'bout a nice musical?

(Quote according to IMDb)

The studio heads, alarmed that Sullivan wants to walk away from his profitable comedy franchise, try to dissuade him by telling him he knows nothing about poverty. He agrees -- but it doesn't dissuade him. He decides he needs to research the movie by experiencing life as a wandering tramp. The studio bosses are horrified, but then they decide the stunt might lead to some beneficial publicity and allow him to proceed -- followed by a phalanx of publicists. An entourage defeats the purpose of traveling incognito, so Sullivan tries to arrange an escape.

Along the way, he encounters a discouraged would-be actress (Veronica Lake) on her way out of Hollywood, and seeks to help her without revealing his true identity.

Sullivan suffers various comic setbacks along the way -- fate seems to keep pulling him back to Hollywood. Finally, though, he gets to spend a little time living simply and working hard, and he manages to convince himself that his research is complete. That's when he is hit by something totally unexpected, something which gives him a taste of real struggle and powerlessness in a way he could never have planned or anticipated. He also gets a lesson in the value of simple, diverting entertainment to those whose lives are burdensome.

It's a fantastic movie, funny and diverting itself but with a tiny little message about empathy and compassion slipped in at the end.

There's an unfortunate black stereotype early on in the film -- a cook involved in some condescending slapstick comedy. But the director redeems himself later, with a climactic scene taking place at a black church which was so different from the way African-Americans were usually portrayed on screen at the time that the NAACP actually contacted Sturges to thank him for it.

Anyway, it's a terrific movie, and it will turn back up on TCM eventually. When it does, you should check it out.


Comments
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John, I love Preston Sturges films. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek is one of the funniest films I've ever seen and is pretty racy subject matter for the 1940's. Sullivan's Travels, The Lady Eve, Christmas in July, Hail the Conquering Hero and Unfaithfully yours are all very entertaining. It's amazing that Sturges also wrote all of these films as well as directing them. He was a terrific talent. I highly recommend the 7 disc Sturges box set by Universal and I would recommend picking up The Miracle of Morgan's Creek second hand as it appears to be out of print but can be found reasonably priced. I'm glad to see another Sturges fan out there. Most of what passes for funny can't hold a candle to Sturges.

-- Posted by cortnerkin on Wed, Nov 23, 2011, at 4:24 AM

I should have mentioned "Hail The Conquering Hero" -- love that one, too.

If you ever get the chance, read "Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges." It reads like an autobiography but was actually assembled by Sturges' widow based on his papers and reminiscences. He was really a fascinating character -- he grew up in the wake of his larger-than-life, "Mame"-like mother, who was a close friend of dancer Isadora Duncan, and traveled the world at an early age. He even invented and marketed, prior to his movie career, a long-wearing lipstick.

-- Posted by Jicarney on Wed, Nov 23, 2011, at 9:29 AM


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John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette.
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