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Sullivan's Travels: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, and William Demarest

Written and directed by Preston Sturges

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

"Laughter is the shortest distance between two people."

— Preston Sturges

*          *          *

Just thinking about the life of Preston Sturges makes you tired. He seems to have been always on the go, his brain roiling with ideas, inventions, new screenplays.

Was the man's day-to-day life as frenetic as his movies? If so, the frenzy found its roots in his family. Born Edmund Preston Biden on August 29, 1898 in Chicago, he spent a peripatetic childhood following his mother, Mary Estelle Dempsey, on annual pilgrimages to Europe, where she dwelled in Isadora Duncan's circle (she gave the dancer the scarf that led to her death), and where the young Sturges was often farmed out to relatives and friends. These excursions alternated with obligatory trips back to Chicago, where his indulgent stockbroker stepfather lived. Sturges's subsequent life was rife with activity — running his mother's cosmetics company, where he invented "kiss proof" lipstick; switching from songwriting to playwriting on a dare and penning two hits before a string of flops; toiling in the trenches of Hollywood at virtually every studio before landing at Paramount, to become the much-lauded master of the fast-paced screwball comedy, with his own Ellis Island of a stock company. In 1940 alone he finished The Great McGinty, wrote and directed Christmas in July, opened a restaurant called The Players, and wrote and directed The Lady Eve. Looking like a cross between Clark Gable and Ernie Kovacs, he eventually did eight movies for Paramount before fate conspired to put impediments before his seemingly tireless energy (he was a disciple of a self-help manual called How Never to be Tired: Two Lifetimes in One). Leaving Paramount to collaborate with Howard Hughes heralded a decline in his pace. After a decade of what seemed to the public as inactivity, he died on August 6, 1959, of a heart attack in the Algonquin Hotel, only half-finished with an autobiography he was writing for Henry Holt.

If the movies are the man, then Sturges must have been an ur-Coppola, surrounded by family, always scheming to make money, alternating between fits of megalomania and bankruptcy. His career also had parallels with Orson Welles', both men being larger-than-life personalities from Chicago (more or less) with protective male figures smiling benevolently over 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, or at least consistent, theme in art: Image versus Reality. Master manipulators of the media, at least for a time, they also investigated the contradictions between the urges that drive men and the perceptions of themselves they leave behind. Sturges's film The Power and the Glory, about a troubled industrialist, is viewed by scholars as an unacknowledged influence on Welles' Citizen Kane. In Sturges's case, however, the theme might be modified to Image versus Shallowness. Often he seemed to be fascinated by how people of little merit could rise in society while true heroes were scorned. In that regard, Sturges is also a precursor to Billy Wilder, the '50s' boldest advocate of the Rogue as true arbiter of history and standard-bearer of reality. Wilder, a friend of his, also followed Sturges as the first prominent screenwriter to make the transition to writer-director.

*          *          *

Movie director John L. Sullivan is the premiere mediocre male to find success in the shallow but densely populated world that Sturges committed to film. In a parody of picaresque satires like Gulliver's Travels, Sullivan's Travels is a comical examination of the 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 it's one of the bleakest, most disturbing comedies to come out of Hollywood, and one that reminds us that Sturges, like Welles, is really unclassifiable as a director. The label "slapstick comedy director" is too limiting for the world-vision Sturges was presenting.

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 Steinerish music, two men fight each other on a moving train before falling into the river, presumably to their mutual death. Soon, this proves to be the tail-end of a movie viewed by successful comedy director Sullivan (Joel McCrea), auteur of Hey, Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in your Plants of 1939. He's with the two chiefs (Porter Hall, Robert Warwick) of an unnamed studio. The titleless film has been a success (held over for a fifth week at Radio City Music Hall), and Sullivan is offering up the work 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 (an amalgam of contemporaneous liberal social protest novelists). 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 its title character. As usual, Sturges had trouble with the studio about it all. The remarkable thing about Sturges is that he was able to get anything done at all. Sturges's career is rife with bad decisions, rushed into with his usual optimistic flair. They range from his abandoning a troubled play he had in production to track down an estranged wife in Europe, to his advocacy of Veronica Lake in the Girl's part for Sullivan's Travels. Critics seem to agree that Lake gives her best, most nuanced performance for Sturges. Sturges scholar Brian Henderson does not. Noting that Ida Lupino or Frances Farmer, who were among the candidates the studio insisted on, would have given conviction to the Girl's mysterious suitcase of woes, Henderson suggests that Lake is a monkey-wrench in the film's workings. And admitting that it is heresy to criticize a beloved film, Henderson nevertheless goes on to chastise Sturges for not blending slapstick and verbal humor very well, and for underscoring The Girl's supposed wit with unsubtle mugging from onlookers. Henderson also laments the missing Carson scene. This is a scene, actually shot, in which Sullivan is picked up by a man who soon proves to be a cop. As they talk, Sullivan's unwillingness to really suffer and work is highlighted, and then Carson deposits the director at the house of a widow, the film resuming with a shot of a bare-chested McCrea chopping wood. Henderson argues that retaining this scene would have given the film an added political dimension (it does not appear on the DVD).

Henderson's arguments are valid, but it's still a lovely film, if for no other reason than 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.

*          *          *

The Criterion Collection offers a fine DVD, packed with extras and offering 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 Dolby Digital 1.0 audio and English subtitles.

Supplements are extensive, if for Sturges fanatics only. Leading off is a group audio commentary by director Noah Baumbach, who did Kicking and Screaming, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and documentarian Kenneth Bowser. This is a commentary track by turns useless and informative. Things start off poorly with Guest making a very bad joke; later they get worse when Baumbach brags about wowing his college film professors (Baumbach's mother is Village Voice reviewer Georgia Brown). On the other hand, McKean, who worked on his own modestly funny movie biz movie, The Big Picture, provides real insight into Sturges's practices. However, one wonders why Brian Henderson, who has compiled three volumes of Sturges's screenplays, or Diane Jacobs, one of Sturges four biographers, weren't on board.

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, who also did one on Frank Capra, and written by Variety chief reviewer and Hawks biographer 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.

For some reason, Sullivan's Travels is not as esteemed as highly as, say, The Lady Eve. But the film has its pleasures. Perhaps above all, it is arguably the best of a minor but surprisingly packed genre of movies about movies — rivaled only by Sunset Boulevard and Living in Oblivion for biting satire, accuracy of detail, and pathos.

— D. K. Holm

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