Preston Sturges began his career as a playwright, before spending ten years as a highly regarded scriptwriter. Then, in 1940, he had the opportunity to make his directorial debut, The Great McGinty, based on his own screenplay (which won the 1941 Best Writing: Original Screenplay Oscar). Though other Hollywood directors before him had directed their own scripts, Sturges was unique in that he was one of the first artists who began as a successful scriptwriter, then transitioned into a directing his own scripts. Following the success of The Great McGinty, Sturges wrote and directed two more films, including The Lady Eve, before doing double-duty again on his fourth feature, Sullivan’s Travels, in 1941.
There are countless reason as to why Sullivan’s Travels is widely considered one of the greatest comedies of all time. Here are just five of them.
1. THE STORY
Sullivan’s Travels is the story of Sully: John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrae), a commercially-successful director of films such as Hey Hey in the Hayloft, So Long, Sarong, and others with suitably cheesy titles, who decides, much to the distress of his film studio bosses, that he wants to produce socially relevant films. He hits the road undercover, dressed as a homeless person (referred to in the film as a ‘tramp’, as per the acceptable language of the day), so he can ‘see the real world’ and ‘find some trouble’. He does find trouble, but not what he expected. Along with his sidekick, an aspiring actress known only as The Girl (Veronica Lake), Sully goes on quite an unexpected journey.
McCrae and Lake make such a perfect duo. A wonderful odd couple. From their first meeting, they look an odd match. He: tall and broad-shouldered, in his ‘tramp’ costume; She: diminutive, and in a glamorous silk gown and famous peek-a-boo hair. Their distinctly different speaking styles enhance the contrast: he straight to the point and slightly uncouth, her cool and composed – despite her character’s dire circumstances.
Eighteen-year-old Lake was actually six months pregnant when shooting began, and gave birth just one month after the final scenes were shot. Thanks to eight-time Oscar-winning costume designer Edith Head’s amazing work, no hint of the pregnancy is visible to the audience.
Lake and Sturges never worked together again, but McCrae would star in Sturges’ next feature, The Palm Beach Story, the following year.
The Sullivan’s Travels cast also includes a fabulous collection of eclectic (and often eccentric) supporting characters and extras, many of whom Sturges had cast previously, and would also work with on future films.
3. THE SCENE WITH THE STUDIO BOSSES
One of the best scenes in Sullivan’s Travels is right at the beginning, when Sully tells his studio bosses about his plans to make a serious film. This scene is such a winner on every front. Some of the highlights include:
The film opens with a dramatic fight scene on a moving train, which ends with ‘THE END’ credits, then instantly cuts to people in a screening room, lit only by the projector light. The effect is quite powerful. Perhaps a nod to the post-newsreel scene in Citizen Kane earlier that year?
- Brilliant satire:
The book that Sully wants to base his next film on, after he’s experienced enough ‘trouble’ to give it an air of authenticity, is the fictional novel Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? by a Sinclair Beckstein, an illusion to realist writers including John Steinbeck. This was particularly relevant in 1941, as the magnificent film adaptation of Steinbeck’s depression-era tale of woe The Grapes of Wrath (directed by John Ford), has just opened the year before. [SIDE NOTE: the star of that film, Henry Fonda, had also worked with Sturges six months before, when filming Sturges’ earlier hit, The Lady Eve].
- Snappy dialogue:
The studio bosses are quick in their comebacks to every one of Sully’s suggestions. Case in point: Sully: ‘I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!’. Studio boss: ‘But with a little sex!’.
- Hollywood references:
When one of the studio bosses mentioned Frank Capra, in reference to films with a message, Sully replies defensively: ‘What’s wrong with Capra?’.
Sully also mentions ‘Keystone chasers’ in reference to frivolous films, without deep meaning.
Both these references have become more relevant as certain scenes from the film unfold.
- And finally:
You must check out Sully’s suit pants in this scene! They are so ridiculously high-waisted that they rival Theodore Twombly’s Harry High Pants ones in Her.
4. SHIFTS IN MOOD AND GENRE.
Though Sullivan’s Travels is officially a comedy, it actually makes a number of genre shifts. There’s comedy and satire, as well as tragedy and drama. These shifts are so expertly orchestrated by Sturges, that they seem perfectly natural. Even sharp jumps from tragedy to comedy and back to comedy again just feel so right.
The high comedy scenes include one in particular that is very much in the vein of the above-mentioned Keystone Cops. There’s a mad road chase, between Sully (in a side car with a young boy driver speeding), and a collection of studio workers who’ve been paid to follow Sully around in a ‘road yacht’ (which is like a campervan-like bus). As the road yacht speeds along, the motley group of people inside get spun upside down and slide from side to side, while props, equipment and furnishings sly about. It’s hilarious, and done on a relatively small budget. [SIDE NOTE: Anchorman 2 had a similar scene – actors and props akimbo etc – and even though it cost so much more, it was no-where near as funny].
The scenes of tragedy in Sullivan’s Travels showing the poor people displaced by the Depression are particularly sensitive and poignant – à la the above-mentioned Grapes of Wrath, as were the scenes in a prison work camp.
One very beautiful, moving scene is set in an African-American church, where the prison camp inmates have been invited to a film screening. The wonderfully deep-voiced pastor leads his congregation in a stirring rendition of Let My People Go, while the forlorn (principally white) prisoners make there way down the aisle, all the while in (literal and figurative) chains. [SIDE NOTE: as powerful as this scene is, I also can’t help smiling every time I see it, as I’m reminded of Alan Ruck as Cameron in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, singing Let My Cameron Go].
I suspect perhaps this church scene is also a nod to the above-mentioned Frank Capra, as the way Sturges focuses on individual faces in the crowd (both the depressing faces of the prisoners as they arrive, and the laughing ones of both the prisoners and congregation when they watch a Disney cartoon) is very Capra-esque.
5. THE FILM’S INFLUENCE
- The Coen Brothers borrowed the fictitious Sinclair Beckstein’s novel title for their film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? A number of scenes from the Coen film contain references to scenes and themes from Sturges’ film.
- In Stardust Memories, Woody Allen’s character Sandy Bates is a successful comedy director who wants to make serious, socially-conscious films, against the wishes of the money holders, and his fans.
- In a Sullivan’s Travels, the gratitude expressed after the receipt of a free meal is met with the response: ‘When your ship comes in, buy someone some ham and eggs’. This idea is similar to that in the film Pay it Forward.
- And in popular culture and fashion, Veronica Lake’s famous hairstyle, which first achieved wide exposure in Sullivan’s Travels, would go on to influence red carpet and high glamour looks, both in the 1940s and in the ensuing decades.
Sullivan’s Travels is still a terrifically funny and moving film, all these years later. It certainly hasn’t lost any of it’s punch. And all those screenwriter/directors who came after Sturges, and those still to come, can thank him for paving the way for other slashies who combine these two great arts.
Lisa Malouf – follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf