Preston Sturges’ biting class satire remains as valid, and as entertaining, as the day it was made.
NOTE: This review contains mild spoilers. Sullivan’s Travels is not exactly a film of twists and turns, but if you are worried, you know what to do…
To this day, there remains a curious belief amongst critics and audiences alike that comedy films are somehow an inferior art form. It might be unspoken, and possibly subconscious, but it’s certainly there. Comedy is seen as beneath drama. It doesn’t win too many awards and few comedies made it into Sight and Sound‘s Top One Hundred movies list – even Monty Python’s Life of Brian, voted the best comedy film ever in at least one poll, didn’t make the list.
It’s this belief – and how foolish it is -that is at the heart of Sullivan’s Travels, a wonderfully acerbic yet warm-hearted Preston Sturges movie that takes several digs at both the pomposity of those who see making people laugh as a low form of art, and at rich ‘poverty tourists’ – the rich and privileged who want to be a voice for ‘the poor’. In a world where middle class, wealthy Islington based filmmakers are handed public funding to shoot films about an underclass that they have no connection with and where well paid, privately educated newspaper columnists choose to live in squat to ‘keep it real’ (in the words of Pulp’s Common People, an equally acidic attack on such people, “everybody hates a tourist”), the self-conscious slumming of John L. Sullivan seems all too plausible an idea.
In Sullivan’s Travels, Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a successful director of lightweight escapist comedies who yearns for something more. It’s a time of hardship and unemployment, and he wants to reflect that in his next film, a gritty drama called Oh Brother Where Art Thou (later lifted by the Coen Brothers of course), despite the insistence of his producers LeBrand (Robert Warwick) and Hadrian Porter Hall) that the public who are actually undergoing said hardships don’t want to see such misery reflected back at them on the screen. Besides, they point out, the wealthy and privileged Sullivan knows absolutely nothing about poverty or human suffering. He realises they are right, and so determines to go undercover as a hobo, with just ten cents in his pocket, to experience real suffering.
This is classic poverty tourism, and the film exposes the vacuous and insulting nature of this through Sullivan’s butler Burrows, as he objects to the entire endeavour, pointing out in the film’s most biting moment: “The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous… You see, sir, rich people and theorists – who are usually rich people – think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches – as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn’t, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned.”
Not to be put off, Sullivan heads out on his great adventure, only to find himself followed by a land yacht full of personal assistants who are there to both protect him and milk his slumming for publicity purposes. But Sullivan finds it hard to escape his real life. After finding himself working for a sexually voracious older woman (in a scene that takes a dig at how out of touch filmmakers are with real audience, Sullivan is taken by her to the cinema, where he is disconcerted by a bored audience eating, fidgeting and making noise throughout precisely he sort of worthy film he wants to make), he makes his escape and hitches a ride, only to awaken to find himself back in Hollywood. Heading to a diner, he is taken pity on by a failed movie starlet (Veronica Lake), who is just about to go back home but is willing to buy lunch for this bum. When he realises she can actually act, Sullivan tries to convince her to stay in town and eventually reveals the truth about who he is to her – notably, she’s angry, not happy at this revelation. But as Sullivan is determined to continue on his mission, she demands he take her with him.
Lake’s insertion into the story is, in many ways, a contrivance, but it’s one that Sturges is only too aware of – “how does the girl fit in the picture?” asks a cop after the pair are arrested on suspicion of stealing a car (in fact, it’s Sullivan’s car). “There’s always a girl in the picture. What’s the matter, don’t you go to the movies?” Sullivan retorts. And while the film finally runs out of ideas of how to use her and so drops her for much of the final act, Lake is a real breath of life in the film. Her world-weary, resigned attitude early on, her later excitement and her genuine likeability lift the film every time she is on-screen (and in keeping with Sullivan’s maxim of making “a picture of dignity… with a little sex in it”, she gets a couple of teasing shower scenes that would’ve been hot stuff at the time). She makes a great foil for McCrea and the pair have an authentic chemistry that makes their developing romance believable – you can’t imagine anyone not falling in love with this girl.
Sullivan and the girl carry out his fact-finding mission – jumping freight trains, sleeping in flophouses, doing manual labour and becoming predictably miserable until he decides his slumming is complete. He hands out five-dollar bills to the homeless (a classic bit of middle-class condescension) but is attacked by one, who steals his shoes – the only part of his hobo outfit to contain any identification – and is then hit by a train. With the body unidentifiable, everyone presumes Sullivan dead; in a neat plot contrivance, Sullivan has temporary amnesia and finds himself sentenced to six years in prison for assault. It’s while here, unable to prove his true identity, that Sullivan finally realises the value of comedy – attending a film show at a black church with his fellow convicts, he watches a Mickey Mouse cartoon and suddenly becomes aware that for people who have awful, miserable, hopeless lives, the comedy his dismissed as worthless is a rare point of relief. It’s escapism because people want to escape from their desperate lives for a while. It’s a message you suspect would be lost on the likes of Ken Loach, but for Sullivan, it is a wake-up call, one that makes him appreciate the value of the ‘disposable’ works (Hey Hey in the Hayloft; Ants in Your Pants 1939) he has been making.
The best of Preston Sturges’ films, Sullivan Travels still feels sharp when seen today. It positive crackles with sharp dialogue – not necessarily realistic dialogue, but witty, pointed and entertaining nonetheless, and the cast make it seem plausible. McCrea, constantly pained and self-righteous, is excellent as the arrogant, if well-meaning Sullivan, and the film’s supporting characters are all more developed than you’d find in most films – no one is here simply to make up the numbers.
It’s interesting that although the film’s plot is a defence of the escapist comedy as something of worth, Sturges here has his cake and eats it, as Sullivan’s Travels is certainly a message movie, one that pointedly contrasts the lives of the unwilling poor with the slumming Sullivan. That it wraps all this up in a comedy veneer simply makes the point all the better – light comedy can still have something to say, an idea we are more comfortable with now perhaps, but which still sees movies treated with a lack of respect if they are deemed too disposable. As with horror movies, comedy films are often so good at slipping their message in subversively that it is lost on many a critic who can only take the film on face value. And the comedy here seems to be a deliberate mix of the highbrow – sharp dialogue, adult themes – and the lowbrow, as it often descends into slapstick. It’s as if Sturges is challenging critics to say that one for of comedy is inferior to the other by including both. Of course, the individual viewer is also free to decide how to view the film – you can just as easily enjoy this as a light, romantic comedy as you can a deeper work. Neither interpretation is right or wrong.