Thursday, September 25, 2014

#1,501. Sullivan's Travels (1941)

Directed By: Preston Sturges

Starring: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick

Tag line: "A Happy-Go Lucky Hitch-Hiker on the Highway to happiness! He wanted to see the world . . . but wound up in Lover's Lane!"

Trivia: Veronica Lake was six months pregnant at the beginning of production, a fact she didn't tell Sturges until filming began. Sturges was so furious when he learned that, according to Lake, he had to be physically restrained

Preston Sturges’ 1941 comedy with a conscience, Sullivan’s Travels stars Joel McCrea as movie director John Lloyd Sullivan, whose films (such as Ants in Your Plants of 1939) are among the most popular in the country. 

Yet despite his success, Sullivan longs to make a movie that’s socially relevant, reflecting the poverty and despair currently gripping the nation. To research his latest project, a human drama titled O Brother, Where art Thou, Sullivan poses as a hobo, and with only $0.10 in his pocket he sets out to experience what it means to be hungry and out of work. 

Along the way, he meets a would-be actress (Veronica Lake) who joins Sullivan on his grand adventure. Together, the two spend time among the poor and destitute, sleeping on mission floors and eating in soup kitchens. 

Convinced he’s now ready to tackle O Brother, Where Art Thou, Sullivan returns to the Hollywood fold. But when he attempts to reward the needy who aided his research, he finally learns what true suffering is.

Joel McCrae is utterly believable as the well-meaning yet naïve title character, and the early scenes depicting his journey to poverty row are played almost entirely for laughs. After ditching the “land yacht”, a large bus hired by the studio to follow closely behind and make sure he doesn’t get into trouble, Sullivan visits a farm owned and operated by an elderly widow (Almira Sessions) and her sister (Esther Howard), who offer him room and board in exchange for his services (chopping wood, etc). When the widow takes a liking to him, Sullivan sneaks out in the middle of the night and hitches a ride, only to end up back in Hollywood! 

Even his budding relationship with the struggling actress (Lake’s character is never given a name), who, disguised as a boy, accompanies him on his journey, plays out like a romantic comedy (in one very funny scene, the two learn that leaping from a moving train is twice as difficult as hopping onto one).

Then, at about the halfway mark, director Sturges throws his audience a curve by changing the entire tone of the picture, taking what had been a lively comedy and transforming it into a drama ripe with social commentary. The trouble begins when Sullivan, feeling he’s completed his mission, again visits the poor, this time to hand out $5 bills as a “thank you” for opening his eyes to their plight. Before he can do so, however, he’s jumped by a vagrant and knocked unconscious. Dragging Sullivan’s limp body into an abandoned railway car and stealing his shoes, the vagrant then runs off, only to be struck and killed by a passing train. 

This kicks off a chain of events that takes Sullivan's Travels in a very dark direction. After giving us plenty to laugh about early on, Sturges, with these later scenes, stirs our emotions in a much different, yet equally satisfying way.

Wonderfully acted and expertly directed, Sullivan’s Travels is a marvelous motion picture.

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