1941. Starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake. Directed by Preston Sturges.
Preston Sturges deserves a national monument. I doubt that he’s going to get one at this point, so maybe I’ll just suggest that his films deserve a renewed round of appreciation. Sturges was a screenwriter and director who packed his scripts with wit, packed his scenes with his stock players, and filled his films with anarchic slapstick, comic misunderstandings and exaggerated reactions. Maybe the best place to begin with him is his masterpiece, “Sullivan’s Travels.”
Joel McCrea stars as successful director John L. Sullivan, much beloved for his box-office hits “Hey Hey in the Hayloft” and “Ants In Your Plants ’49.” He wants to use his success to explore more serious subjects through a picture that’s “a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!” But, as his studio boss implores, “with a little sex in it.” His dream project is “O Brother Where Art Thou,” an examination of the challenges faced by the down and out, the transient and poor. The only problem is, he’s never experienced anything close to desperation or poverty.
Sullivan decides to throw on some tattered rags and hit the road, but the studio, with its valuable asset risking his life and career, send a luxury-laden bus to follow him. His attempt at losing the well-intentioned tail results in meeting the very lovely Veronica Lake, who has given up on a Hollywood big break and is heading out of town. To keep her from leaving, he reveals his real identity and returns to his palatial Hollywood estate.
The pair make another attempt at a hobo’s life, and soon, finding it too rough and unpleasant, return to the comfort of Hollywood. When McCrea returns to the railyard to thank the bums with $5 bills, he’s knocked out and thrown onto an eastbound train. The bum who steals his money and ID is run over and killed, his entourage believes that it’s he who has died. Arrested and thrown onto a chain gang, the great director finally gets to experience the tough life he’s dreamt of filming.
Sturges injects a lot of screwball into this comedy, but has a bigger point to make about show business — namely, that there’s value in entertaining people, even if you don’t make them think. As McCrea realizes, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have?”
Many of Sturges’ films involve the confused generosity of strangers who intervene on the lead characters, allowing them a chance to emerge from an ordinary life to a miraculous one — perfect for those who survived the 1930s and used the movies as a means of escape from the daily grind. He made much more screwy comedies — “Hail the Conquering Hero,” “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and “Easy Living” are all giddy with surreality — but “Sullivan’s Travels” has a lot of heart to go with the chuckles.