Our reviews of Sullivan's Travels (published March 8th, 2012) and Sullivan's Travels (1941) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published April 21st, 2015) are also available.
Veronica Lake's on the take.
Though already a respected screenwriter, Preston Sturges persuaded Paramount to allow him to direct his next film by selling them the script for one dollar. The result was 1940s political satire The Great McGinty, a hit for the studio and the start of an incredible run for Sturges. Between 1940 and 1944 Sturges put together a string of hits, including some of the greatest films of all time like The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story. In the middle of this run, Sturges came up with the idea for Sullivan's Travels when his peers were making a shift towards "message pictures." The story of a comedy director who wants to make such a film, Sullivan's Travels was only mildly successful upon its original release, but has since grown in stature with film critics and lovers, even inspiring the title of the recent Coen Brothers hit O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Criterion gives Sullivan's Travels due treatment on DVD with a spiffy new transfer and some terrific supplements.
Facts of the Case
Film director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is the Mel Brooks of his day, famous for his comedies "Hey, Hey in the Hayloft" and "Ants In Your Plants of 1939." For his next project Sullivan wants to make a serious, earthy picture about human suffering entitled "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Unfortunately, Sullivan is the product of an upper-class upbringing and knows zilch about the subject matter. Despite the pleas of the studio bosses, Sullivan decides to take to the road with only ten cents in his pocket, intending to live as a hobo. After ditching the studio's hired bodyguards who are trailing him in a loaded R.V., Sullivan finds work at the home of a randy middle-aged widow. Upon escaping, Sullivan unwittingly finds himself right back in the heart of Hollywood, where he meets a beautiful young aspiring actress (Veronica Lake). After learning his true identity, the girl forces her way on the road with Sullivan. Sullivan's glad for the company, but soon learns that it's hard enough to fill one hungry stomach let alone two. and when real trouble comes his way, Sullivan realizes that laughter may be more vital to the human condition that he'd previously thought.
It is astounding that Sullivan's Travels was made all the way back in 1942. Almost sixty years old, and the comedy and social critique in this film still feel fresh and relevant. Genius writer/director Preston Sturges knew that Hollywood was ripe for a little parody way before films like The Player and Swimming With Sharks took their swipes at the Industry. Sullivan's Travels is every bit as biting as these films, but lacks their cynicism. At the heart of this story is the belief that films play a very important role in our lives. They make us laugh and cry, and sometimes help us solidify our convictions. In this case, Sullivan travels the country to experience poverty, in order to make a film for the poverty-stricken. What he learns is that the poor don't need a film about their own experience—they live it everyday. What they really need, and maybe it's the only thing they have, is laughter. It's an important message, and Sturges' greatest apologetic for a career that made millions of people laugh.
The script for Sullivan's Travels is almost perfect. Peppered with brilliant one-liners and fast-paced dialogue, you'll enjoy the film even more with subsequent viewings. But just as compelling is what Sturges is able to convey without dialogue. Early in the film, Sullivan watches a movie in a crowded theater, filled with noisy kids and snacking adults. Sullivan's a long way from a studio screening room, and, though annoyed at the distraction, he realizes these people are his audience. Later in the film, Sturges constructs a montage in which Sullivan and Lake's character come face to face with real poverty. Their shadows play on the faces of the poor as they walk through a shantytown straight out of The Grapes of Wrath. It's a haunting image that lends a little weight to this light comedy. Sullivan's Travels could be criticized for light treatment of a serious subject, were it not for this sequence, and the entire final half hour of the film, in which Sullivan's truly finds the destitution for which he's been looking.
Despite the fact that the guy is fabulously wealthy and more famous than you'll ever be, you can't dislike Sullivan because he's so well intentioned, if a little naïve. He truly wants to make his work meaningful. He's not arrogant, indeed he doesn't think he's a great director, he just wants to be better. Sullivan is also virtuous—he refuses to get involved with Lake's character because he's still married—albeit only legally. Joel McCrea turns in arguably the greatest non-Western performance of his career. His natural likability is key is making Sullivan's Travelswork.
Veronica Lake is such a powerful force in this film that her character didn't even need a name. She's simply called "The Girl" in the credits; it enigmatically captures her beauty, wit and charm. For those of you who've never heard of or seen Lake, you're in for quite a treat (especially the pool robe scene). Incidentally, it was Lake for whom Kim Basinger's character was modeled (literally) in L.A. Confidential. Yowza!
Sullivan's Travels is presented in its original aspect ratio, a black and white 1.33:1. Considering this film is almost sixty years old, this brand-new transfer is in exceptional shape. Blacks levels are solid, though the focus seems a little soft at times. There are occasional occurrences of dust and blemish on the print, but overall, fans will be very pleased. The film is presented in Dolby Digital Mono and there's even less to complain about here. The audio track is clean and clear of any distortion. Obviously no mono track is going to wow your system, but this is very adequate.
Criterion has produced a veritable treasure trove of supplements for this film that should delight Sturges' fanatics as well as casual fans. First up is a commentary by Christopher Guest and Michael McKean (of Spinal Tap fame) as well as Noah Baumbach (director of Kicking and Screaming) and Sturges documentarian Kenneth Bowser. A good audio commentary criticizes the film, informs about its history, explores its themes and makes you laugh. This commentary does all of those things. Guest primarily provides the yuks with off-beat observations—like the fact that today this film would be remade starring Tony Danza and Valerie Bertinelli. The weakest link here is Baumbach. Not only does he have a grating voice, but he merely describes what is going on on-screen when not singing his own praises. Otherwise, this is a great addition to the disc. It definitely makes the case for more "critic" commentaries as opposed to "filmmaker" commentaries.
The next major supplement on the disc is the entire 76 minute PBS documentary "Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer." This impressive documentary chronicles Sturges' interesting childhood in Europe, his early forays into Broadway Theater, his transition to directing films, and ultimate loss of favor in Hollywood. The documentary is clearly several years old and includes interviews with Preston's friends, family and stars. After viewing it, you won't lack for information on this great director's life. But if you still want more on Sturges there's a fourteen-minute interview with his widow Sandy. Conducted in January of 2001, Sandy is affable and fond in her remembrances of Preston's career. It's a nice personal supplement, though it could be a little more specific to Sullivan's Travels. Also on disc is a wealth of archival material, including 90 production stills (with some shots of deleted scenes), 60 behind-the-scenes photos, and a publicity scrapbook. The four minute interview with Hedda Hopper and Preston Sturges is obviously scripted and again has little to do with Sullivan's Travels. Ditto for the audio recordings of Sturges singing and reciting a poem, but it's interesting to hear Sturges nonetheless. Finally, the original theatrical trailer is included on this disc. It's in horrible shape, which only serves to make the new transfer of the film all the more impressive.
With Sullivan's Travels, Criterion proves that they're still at the top of their game. A high-quality transfer and a stellar audio commentary would've been satisfactory, but they've jam-packed this disc with several other gems that'll keep you popping it in for the long haul. Sullivan's Travels is one of the great films of its era, and certainly among the best movies about movies there has ever been.
Not guilty! Sullivan's free to travel some more…
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Scales of Justice
• Feature-Length Commentary by Noah Baumbach, Kenneth Bowser, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean
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