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