Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels is the most complete merging of the director’s sophistication, screwball wordplay and his love of America’s low brow, slapstick comedy. With this film, Sturges successfully plumbs the depths of socially conscious comedy on the level of Charles Chaplin. Relying far more on his brilliant writing than on the balletic physical comedy of Chaplin (although the chase scene featuring a “land yacht” and a passerby’s home made racecar would be at home in any Mack Sennett Keystone Kop comedy), Sturges manages to satirize the Hollywood establishment and America’s understanding and treatment of the poor at the end of the Depression while maintaining a hopefulness skirting sentimentality.
That hopefulness is buoyed by 40s everyman Joel McCrea’s performance in the eponymous role of John Sullivan, a Hollywood director striking out to live like a hobo, research for his latest picture “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?” , which he informs studio execs will be a serious, social picture “with a little sex.” McCrea comes across radiant female lead Veronica Lake, playing a washout actress ready to give up her Hollywood dream in a diner on his second false start to set out on his journey. The leads’ chemistry carries the film, the rest of the ensemble remaining very much in the periphery.
A dialogue free scene of conditions in a shanty town is the film’s most visually striking, as it treats those there with the love and dignity of The Grapes of Wrath without a single word being spoken. It is this dramatic seven minutes in the middle of what is at it’s core a screwball comedy that also reiterates Sturges’ contention that comedies can be every bit affecting as dramas like The Grapes of Wrath. It is also this scene, more than the film’s obvious moral didacticism of the ending, that proves Sturges right. Maybe some filmmakers of today should go back and watch it, and see that comedy can be more than disposable raunchiness, or stupidity. Comedy can be smart. Comedy can have heart. Comedy can matter.
Sullivan’s Travels will be released March 31 on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD