Appellate Judge James A. Stewart doesn't want to hop a freight car—unless Veronica Lake comes along.
Our review of Sullivan's Travels: Criterion Collection, published August 15th, 2001, is also available.
"How can I be alone when you're with me?"
How does a movie studio celebrate its 100th anniversary? If you're Universal, you delve into the vault and retrieve some of the best movies in history. Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels has been honored by AFI and the Library of Congress, so how could they not release it?
Facts of the Case
John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea, The Virginian) has a flair for comedy, but the studio's nervous about the poverty drama he wants to make. "What do you know about trouble?" a studio exec asks. Naturally, Sullivan's clueless, but he wants to learn. Grabbing some hobo garb from wardrobe and heading out into the real world with only a dime in his pocket, he somehow ends up in a diner, being treated to a meal by a would-be actress (Veronica Lake, This Gun for Hire) who takes pity on him. She joins Sullivan on his "experiment," just to make sure he stays safe while he's getting into trouble. But she doesn't join him when he goes back to Skid Row to hand out money. Now he can really get into trouble…
As I was watching the closing credits of Sullivan's Travels, what writer/director Preston Sturges accomplished finally sunk in: he concocted an often-melodramatic movie about the power of laughter. I was impressed. If you've ever admired a director for a brilliant concept, you'll want to see Sullivan's Travels.
Sturges includes a lot of slapstick, but the best gags go back to the concept: a fight scene in one of Sullivan's movies is meant to represent the way "capitol and labor destroy each other"; the studio sends a "land yacht" full of publicists out behind Sullivan as he goes incognito; Sullivan, as a tramp, gets hired to carry a sign board for a clothing store, and any ride he hitches or hops takes him back to Hollywood or to the "land yacht" he wants to escape.
The first hour comes across as sweetly romantic. Veronica Lake (whose character is unnamed) plays Sullivan's traveling companion, a woman who laughs at a bedbug infestation and has a sweet expression which could get them a free breakfast, or at least doughnuts and coffee. She makes her affection for Sullivan genuine and comes across as a strong, reliable woman. As Sullivan, Joel McCrea is well-meaning, but can sound…well, pompous and annoying. Their chemistry works as well as the premise, at least early on.
Something happens, though. Just when it should be over, Sullivan goes out and gets mugged, waking up on a boxcar with a foggy memory. Sturges isn't trying to make viewers laugh here. Sullivan's presumed to be a hobo, has no help handy, and is finding people aren't all that kind to vagrants. Here, Sullivan seems befuddled, finally learning what poverty and misfortune truly mean. After all, no one does this stuff to Hollywood producers. It's only when the gags are gagged that Sturges can introduce a scene showing the way people react to humor, making his point powerfully. While war brings its own set of fresh troubles, the Depression was pretty much over by the time Sullivan's Travels was released in December 1941. Thus, I suspect Sturges' vision of trouble was a little out-of-date.
Sullivan's Travels is part of the National Film Registry, so you know it's in good shape. Its standard definition 1.37:1 black-and-white transfer doesn't exhibit any noticeable flaws, although some of the process shots during Sullivan's travels probably looked fake in 1941. The Dolby 2.0 Mono is serviceable, supporting a classic picture as it should. Bonus features include profiles on Carl Laemmle and Lew Wasserman, two men who once led the famed studio. Universal seems to have kept these short on purpose, but what's here is interesting enough to make me want to see more. We also get an original theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Speaking of which, the trailer plays Sullivan's Travels as a romantic comedy. That's deceptive, but it probably gave 1941 audiences the chance to see the movie without being aware of the dramatic turn. You already know it's loaded with honors, so there must be something coming, but chances are you'll still be impressed.
Sullivan's Travels switches abruptly from comedy to drama, but Preston Sturges' purposeful schism has a way of sticking in your mind. This one is definitely worth a purchase, if you don't already own a previous release.
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