Thursday, October 20, 2016

Sullivan’s Travels: “There’s always a girl in the picture”

The posters for Sullivans Travels
emphasize “The Girl.”
Preston Sturges was one writer-director who could make fun of the American public and their conventions without insulting them. Even when he makes fun of motherhood, romance, and marriage, he never makes you feel foolish for believing in them. In 1941 Sturges took on the motion picture business that is both hilarious and poignant.

John L. (Sully) Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a successful motion picture director best know for light comedies and musicals like Ants in Your Plants of 1939. However, at this point in his career he wants to tackle more serious fare. “Something like Capra” studio executive Mr. Hadrian (Porter Hall) says, to which Sullivan retorts. “What’s the matter with Capra?” He wants to film O, Brother Where Art Thou?, a novel that deals with “social significance” (think The Grapes of Wrath). Sullivan says “conditions have changed, these are troublous times.” The studio executives, Mr. Lebrand (Robert Warwick) and Mr. Hadrian, see their top moneymaker slipping away so they ask Sullivan what he knows about trouble? While Lebrand and Hadrian contrast Sullivan’s charmed life—boarding school, college—with their own hardscrabble youth—mostly fiction—selling newspapers and supporting their families. Sullivan has to admit that he doesn’t know what trouble is. At this point, Lebrand and Hadrian try to coax him into making Ants in Your Pants of 1941 with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Mary Martin, Jack Benny and Rochester, all names movie audiences would have been familiar with. This name-dropping continues throughout, which makes it even more enjoyable for classic movie fans.

Preston Sturges directs Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea
But no, Sullivan is determined to learn about suffering by disguising himself as a tramp with only a dime in his pocket! The studio suits reluctantly give in to Sullivan, but plan to exploit his adventure. They enlist studio publicist Mr. Casalsis (Franklin Pangborn) who has renovated DeMille’s “land yacht” that he used while filming Northwest Mounted Police (1940) to follow Sullivan. Along for the ride are a doctor, a writer, a secretary, a radio operator, a cook, studio publicists, and a driver. Sullivan ditches this group and spends a day with two sisters working as their handyman. When one sister gets too amorous, he runs away and hitches a ride with a truck driver who lets Sullivan out in Hollywood, the town he’s been trying to get away from. Sullivan stumbles into a diner where he meets “The Girl”—“There’s always a girl in the picture” (Veronica Lake) who has decided to leave Hollywood and forget about a career in the movies. At first she takes pity on Sullivan thinking he’s a tramp down on his luck, even buying him breakfast, until it’s revealed that he is in fact a famous director who knows (Ernst) Lubitsch, the director she would most like to meet.

McCrea and Lake at a revival meeting
When Sullivan goes back on his journey The Girl convinces him to take her along. Dressed as tramps, they travel with the poor and downtrodden, eating at soup kitchens, and sleeping in shelters. At one point they’re reduced to looking through trashcans for food. Sullivan decides they’ve had enough and the two return to Hollywood. Sullivan feels he has now “suffered enough” to direct O, Brother Where Art Thou? Before he returns to directing, Sullivan secretly hands out five-dollar bills to the homeless folks in appreciation for those who were kind to him. Unfortunately one man wants more and assaults Sullivan, steals the money and loads the unconscious director on a freight train. The thief runs away accidentally dropping cash on the train tracks. While trying to pick up the money, the thief is hit and killed by a train. When his mangled body is discovered, a studio identification card sewn into his boots identifies him as Sullivan (the thief stole Sullivan’s boots earlier). The studio and The Girl are informed that Sullivan is dead.

Sullivan and the chain gang watch a Mickey Mouse cartoon.
Sullivan wakes up in a freight car with no memory of what had happened to him. Due to his confusion and memory loss, he ends up assaulting a railroad worker who finds him. This assault lands him on a chain gang. When his memory comes back, no one believes he is John L. Sullivan the famous director. As life on the chain gang becomes more routine, he and the other prisoners go to a black church where they see the Walt Disney cartoon Playful Pluto. At first Sullivan watches the cartoon looking glum and unhappy, but when he sees the audience laughing, he joins them. It’s at this point he has an epiphany. Maybe directing movies that make people laugh, helping them to forget their troubles for a while, is nobler than he thought. Out goes his plans to film O, Brother Where Art Thou?, but how does he get off the chain gang?

Sullivan has an epiphany!
While thinking of ways to get off the chain gang, he has a brainstorm. He says he killed John L. Sullivan, which gets his picture in the paper and he is quickly released. When The Girl, now a movie star, sees Sullivan alive on the front page of the newspaper, she leaves the set (where Sturges is the director). She runs out of the soundstage, where she almost mows down Ray Milland, who looks like he’s in costume for Reap the Wild Wind (1941). Sullivan is released and reunited with the girl and his studio, but he decides “There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”

Sullivan is too happy to make O, Brother Where Art Thou?
Sturges supposedly wrote Sullivan’s Travels as a response to other comedy films that he thought tended to be preachy. I like to think that he was commenting on Hollywood and its tenancy to take itself too seriously. Preston Sturges loved movie comedy enough to make fun of it even if it was at his own expense.

This post is part of the Hollywood on Hollywood blogathon sponsored by the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA) running from October 17 to October 21, 2016. To read more posts in the Hollywood on Hollywood blogathon, click here.

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