Preston Sturges is considered by many to be king of the screwball comedy and his scripts are largely full of fast paced witty repartee between the various characters who tended to get themselves in to all manner of crazy situations. But Sullivan’s Travels is quite different from his normal fare, the first two thirds have all of the elements of his much loved work but then the final third takes a surprisingly unpredictable and even quite bleak direction.
The film starts off in an unusual manner as well as a gritty fight ensues on the top of a train, a gun is pulled and soon at least one man is dead, but it’s a bait and switch as we’re actually watching the latest movie by John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) who has made the studio he works with a lot of money with popular but substanceless films like “Ants In Your Pants Of 1939”. He’s desperate for a change though and wants to make something filled with stark realism and which is a commentary on modern conditions, though he’s willing to throw in “a little sex” to appease his financiers.
They’re very reluctant for him to make such a film but given his past successes are persuaded to do so, even when it involves “A great experiment” where Sullivan will hit the streets dressed as a tramp and with only ten cents to his name so he can truly experience what it is like to be poor. The studio insist he’s followed around on his journey however, with a crew of eight in a “land yacht” covering his every move which Sullivan is deeply unhappy about, and tries to lose the first moment he can in a very fun chase sequence involving lots of slapstick and a thirteen year old boy driving like a maniac.
When he manages to persuade those in the land yacht to let him traverse the country on his lonesome and meet them in a couple of weeks time in Las Vegas he meets “The Girl”, a young woman who is never named but is played by Veronica Lake. Apparently McCrea and Lake did not get on at all with McCrea turning down the chance to work with her again a year later (though they did co-star in a film several years later in 1947) but you wouldn’t guess that as they have real chemistry, and Sturges dialogue is at its funniest here as they banter and tease each other.
Sullivan keeps on ending back in Hollywood despite his best efforts to escape from the world of showbiz, and though initially reluctant Lake persuades him to let her join him on his adventures. But it’s in the sequences after she does this that the film changes tone, initially where we witness what Sturges’ refers to as his “Poverty montage”, with a long dialogue free sequence set to music which displays just how bleak life could be for those who were homeless.
The film then takes an even more dramatic swerve after Sullivan decides to give out one thousand dollars worth of five dollar bills to those in need, silently walking along the poor and giving them the cash, which is met with a mixture of joy and disbelief. But unfortunately for Sullivan one of the homeless men becomes aware of what he’s doing, mugs him, dumps him on a train, but then is hit by another and dies, with everyone thinking it’s Sullivan who is the deceased. Even worse is that when concussed Sullivan hits a train yard employee, suffers a bout of amnesia, and ends up in chains with it highlighting just how horrendously criminals were treated back then.
Of course there’s a happy ending, but a good third of the movie is of the dramatic persuasion, and throughout Sturges is very, very careful not to romanticise poverty in any way. It’s a film which is very aware of the time that its made in too, there’s a dedication at the beginning to those who bring laughter in to our lives and that central message is hammered home at the end too, if the second World War had not broken out I doubt this movie would have been made, or if it had it would have been a quite different piece.
As well as the state of the world and the misery that was taking place in Europe Sturges is obviously aware of how horrendously people are treated when they come from another class, and it’s also a rare film from the forties that is racially considerate, and has a lot to say about the state of America at the time. In some ways it feels like two films in one, the first two thirds being a fun comedy with a lot of pithy dialogue, while the final third is a dramatic discussion of all that’s wrong with the world, but the amazing thing is that Sturges makes such disparate elements work, and it creates a film which will not only bring joy but which also educates without feeling patronising.
I had a lot of issues with Joel McCrea’s moany old bastard in The Palm Beach Story but he’s far better here, and Veronica Lake really is on top form too as the lovelorn young actress who gradually finds her way in the world. Sturges directs it in a playful manner, but doesn’t shirk from the occasional surprisingly emotive moment, and it is a rare film that’s not only extremely funny but also thoughtful and compassionate.