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Sullivan's Travels: The Criterion Collection

Like Orson Welles, Preston Sturges was a larger-than-life personality. Both hailed from Chicago (more or less), had "artistic" mothers, and protective male figures smiling benevolently on their sexual adventures. The two artists seemingly were able to do anything with film and were temporarily embraced by a conventional movie industry that eventually soured on them. And both men were attracted to that great theme, Image versus Reality. In a parody of picaresque satires like Gulliver's Travels, Sullivan's Travels is a comical examination of a movie director's rise and fall, in which at the end he finds himself back where he started, newly satisfied with his lot in life, but also eminently rewarded. Ostensibly, it's a comedy. But, again like Welles, Sturges is unclasifiable, and Sullivan's Travels is one of the bleakest, most disturbing comedies to come out of Hollywood. Sullivan's Travels begins with a trick. In the style of a Warner Bros. social-consciousness movie of the '30s (even down to the Max Steiner-ish music), two men fight each other on a moving train before falling into a river. Soon, this proves to be the tail-end of a movie viewed by successful comedy director Sullivan (Joel McCrea). He's with the two chiefs (Porter Hall, Robert Warwick) of an unnamed studio. Sullivan is offering the film as proof that he should be given the green light for his own social-protest movie, based on a book called O Brother, Where Art Thou? by Sinclair Beckstein. The producers try to argue him out of the idea, but instead the prep school and college educated Sullivan is inspired to hit the road as a hobo to find out what true suffering is all about. Soon, garbed in theatrical hobo rags, Sullivan embarks on what turns out to be four attempted treks out of Hollywood. Along the way, he hitches up with a young woman, called only The Girl (Veronica Lake), who aspires to serve as his protector. Unfortunately, she is unable to prevent him from assault by a greedy bum. Sullivan's travails reach their nadir when he finds himself in a chain gang, one right out of a Warner Bros. movie, and is presumed dead by the outside world. Coming up with an ingenious solution to his plight, he is finally rescued, but not before witnessing the joy with which his fellow prisoners take in a Disney cartoon.

*          *          *

Sullivan's Travels is a remarkable achievement, gentle yet biting at the same time, and relentlessly mocking of its title character. The film is also notable for the presence of Sturges stalwarts William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, and Eric Blore, among many others. One might hear the argument that it is not one of Sturges's most successful comedies, but one might argue back that Sullivan's Travels, with its excursions through noir, the prison film, and tragedy, is not really a comedy in the first place. Once again, Sturges proves really to be unclassifiable. Criterion offers a fine DVD, packed with extras and an excellent transfer of the black and white full-frame film (1.33:1). Accompanying literature indicates that it's a new digital transfer created from a 35mm duplicate negative and optical soundtrack. Only the occasional, almost unnoticeable scratch mars the presentation. The single-sided, dual-layered disc (SS-DL) also features audio in Dolby Digital 1.0 with English subtitles. Supplements are extensive. Leading off is a group audio commentary by director Noah Baumbach, who did Kicking and Screaming, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and documentarian Kenneth Bowser. Also on hand is Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer, a documentary for the PBS "American Masters" series, directed by Kenneth Bowser and written by Todd McCarthy. It's a fine condensation of Sturges's life. Other supplements include an interview with Sandy Sturges, the director's widow, in which she talks about Sturges's background and overall career. We also get to hear the master's voice. There's an obviously scripted radio talk between Sturges and Hedda Hopper aired in the early '50s, in which the director contemplates the advent of television (he is optimistic). There are also two home recordings, one of Sturges reciting a poem, the other of him singing (terribly) one of his own songs. There are storyboards (only one of which seems to have found its equivalent in the finished film) and blueprints (so small you need your DVD player's zoom function, if you have one), and a gallery of publicity material. The full-frame theatrical trailer reveals that Paramount thought it was promoting a Veronica Lake comedy. A six page insert provides technical information and an essay by Todd McCarthy. Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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