Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Sullivan's Travels (1942)

Film: Sullivan's Travels (1942)
Stars: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake
Director: Preston Sturges
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

I've currently been on a bit of a kick to see as many of the remaining "classics" that I haven't seen yet, finishing up both the original and the tenth anniversary AFI 100 Years...100 Movies lists, which brought Sullivan's Travels, arguably one of the least known films on the list, onto my radar.  The movie, directed by comic legend Preston Sturges, who also created the charming and wonderful The Lady Eve and so I was excited to see what was in store for me here, even if I haven't been wild about Veronica Lake in the past.  Thankfully, while I left this film with no greater opinion of Lake, my strong thoughts on Sturges remain intact, as this is a funny if dated comedy about the ravages of poverty during the Great Depression.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film follows John Sullivan (McCrea), who wants to make a truly great, serious picture about the hardships of the world (in a wonderful twist, the film he intends to be made is entitled O Brother Where Art Thou? which the Coen Brothers would eventually make into an Oscar-nominated film starring George Clooney some six decades later).  Sullivan, however, has lived most of his life with a silver spoon in his mouth, at least according to producers who want to trick him into continually making comedies, but this backfires when Sullivan insists that he must go out into the world and learn what the "average Joe" lives like so he can make an authentic picture.  The film follows a relatively traditional pattern after that, admittedly with loads of laughs, as Sullivan has troubles adapting to life on the road (frequently ending up right back at his giant mansion), but alongside a girl (simply billed as The Girl, and played by Lake), he eventually finds himself enduring the hardships and inequalities of the poor after being jailed in a labor camp for six years, before finally realizing that it's comedies that the poor need, not dramas, and goes back to live with the Girl in his mansion, a little bit wiser.

The film's physical comedy is the source of much of its joy, and it's actually quite amusing.  There are bits such as when Joel McCrea is trapped in a boarding house by a randy older woman who is trying to seduce him that had me uproarious with laughter, and it's extremely amusing to watch McCrea continually fail at being poor, as his money and stature just keep creeping back into the picture.  The supporting players are all regulars from Sturges' company, and they know how to mine a laugh, and Sturges is smart enough to fill them with occasionally powerful bite.  Frequently throughout the film we see that, in fact, the people who make pictures about the poor and downtrodden can't possibly imagine their lifestyles, and it's actually a pretty cheeky jab at the rich and their ivory towers.

This sharpness, combined with the brilliant physical comedy, make up for the relatively eye-rolling ending, where McCrea's Sullivan decides the world needs laughter.  Today this wouldn't fly, and it shouldn't have really flown then as what the world actually needed was O Brother Where Art Thou, as people in power (like Sullivan) needed to realize that the poor were being treated horribly.  This ending was a bit of a downer and very high-minded (and considering Sturges worked almost exclusively in comedies, also back-scratching), but the film is too good in the preceding moments for this to derail the picture.  McCrea is also wonderfully hammy in his main role, while Veronica Lake is the little girl lost routine that she seems known for, which borders on the creepy in my opinion as she seems to have more of a father/daughter relationship with McCrea than the romantic one the script pushes.  Still, even with the ending and the questionable romance, this is a thumbs up from me, and I'm glad the AFI steered me in this direction.

Those are my thoughts on Sullivan's Travels, what are yours?  Is anyone a big fan of this, and where does it rank for you alongside Sturges other work?  If I don't love Veronica Lake here, is she a lost cause for me as an actress?  And what classic films are you hanging your head over never seeing?  Share in the comments!

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