Sullivan's Travels

"Very Good"

Sullivan's Travels Review


Would it be fair to say that, when all is said and done, Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels is just not as funny as its choir of supporters have made it out to be? It's not dour by any stretch of the imagination, but it's hardly laugh-filled enough to merit inclusion at #39 on the AFI's list of 100 Funniest American Films. Humor is of course subjective, and to say that the film is just not as funny as some would claim is not a criticism. Sturges was making a comedy, for sure, but the reason that Sullivan's Travels has endured so strongly in the minds of connoisseurs is the filmmakers' attempt to breathe a certain strange strain of realism into what audiences were assuming to be a straight laugh-fest. It isn't entirely successful in the end, but then neither was Woody Allen's attempt to deal with the weight of being considered nothing but a jokester in Stardust Memories, and that one is quite far from a failure.

Sturges loved fake beginnings, and this is one of his best. We open on a knock-down, brawling fight on (and below) a train that's roaring through the mountains at night. The two men finally knock each other off into the raging river, and the screen reads: THE END, after which we find out that it's a film being screened for a couple worried executives by a very popular comic filmmaker, John Sullivan (Joel McCrea), who's trying to break out of his niche, going on about holding a mirror up to life and painting a "true canvas" of humanity's suffering. Chagrined to discover that the suits don't think his silver-spoon upbringing entitles him to know anything about the human condition, Sullivan hits the road with ten cents in his pocket (kitted out in authentic bum-wear from the studio wardrobe) to find out something about it. He spends the rest of the film trying to get away from the suits (worried about losing their golden goose), and striving to find realism. At first he doesn't succeed, accidentally ending up back in Hollywood time and again, but eventually Sullivan gets a little more realism than he had intended.

As a comedy, Sullivan's Travels works just fine. The snap and crackle of Sturges' dialogue kicks along perfectly, especially in a number of early scenes, particularly one classic where Sullivan meets up with a failed actress (Veronica Lake, as wickedly well-timed in her repartee as she is beautiful), who eventually becomes his travel partner. But the film has a tendency to shift moods without warning, in a manner that is not always that effective. Beginning in patent Hollywood fantasy, Sturges smacks us in the face with 1940s' poverty as Sullivan becomes a true down 'n' out, moves into lyrical humanism (a sequence set in a black church has a vivid emotionality rare for the time) then jumps back into farcical comedy, before tying together all too neatly with a Grapes of Wrath-style pronunciation about the needs of the poor.

It's easy to see why the Coen brothers were so taken with the film -- their O Brother, Where Art Thou! is the name here for Sullivan's dream film about showing the true canvas of human suffering, and the mockery of Sullivan's pretensions is heavily echoed in Barton Fink -- but somewhat of a mystery as to why it has been so enshrined in the public memory. At the same time, to ask that a filmmaker like Sturges hit every note perfectly each time out of the gate is asking a bit much.

Riding along for thousands of miles.



Sullivan's Travels

Facts and Figures

Run time: 90 mins

In Theaters: Monday 1st December 1941

Budget: $689.7 thousand

Distributed by: Paramount Pictures

Production compaines: Paramount Pictures

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Fresh: 30

IMDB: 8.2 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Producer: , , Buddy G. DeSylva

Starring: as John L. Lloyd 'Sully' Sullivan, Veronica Lake as The Girl, Robert Warwick as Mr. LeBrand, as Mr. Jones, as Mr. Casalsis, as Mr. Hadrian, Byron Foulger as Johnny Valdelle, as Secretary, Robert Greig as Burroughs - Sullivan's Butler, as Sullivan's Valet, Torben Meyer as The Doctor, Victor Potel as Cameraman, as Radio Man, Charles R. Moore as Colored Chef (as Charles Moore), Almira Sessions as Ursula Kornheiser, Esther Howard as Miz Zeffie Kornheiser, Frank Moran as Tough Chauffeur, Georges Renavent as Old Tramp, Harry Rosenthal as The Trombenick

Also starring: ,

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