“Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) starring Joel McCrea & Veronica Lake

In Preston Sturges’ highly influential film, John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a wealthy/naive/30-ish director of comedies who wants to make a serious pictured focused of the troubles of the poor. Despite the protests of his producers, Sullivan sets off on a journey, wearing a tramp’s (homeless man’s) clothes and carrying only a dime! Along the way, he meets a beautiful/spirited/failed actress- Veronica Lake (only 19 y.o.)- and gets more hard knocks than he bargained for. In 2007, the AFI ranked Sullivan’s Travels as the #61 Greatest Movie of All Time. This film was selected into the National Film Registry in 1990 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Jerry Seinfeld said for what it’s about, Sullivan’s Travels is his favorite movie.

Sullivan: I’m going out on the road to find out what it’s like to be poor and needy and then I’m going to make a picture about it.

Burrows (his butler): If you’ll permit me to say so, sir, the subject is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.

Sturges may’ve got the idea for this movie from stories he heard from actor John Garfield, who lived as a hobo, riding trains and hitchhiking cross-country for a brief time in the 1930s. In his autobiography,  Sturges explained that wrote the film as a reaction to the “preaching” he found in other comedy films “which seemed to have abandoned the fun in favour of the message.” Film buffs will notice how Sturges pokes fun at The Grapes of Wrath and mentions (directors) Frank Capra and Ernst Lubitsch.

Sullivan: …I’m going to find out how it feels to be in trouble. Without friends, without credit, without checkbook, without name. Alone.

The Girl: And I’ll go with you.

Sullivan: How can I be alone if you’re with me?

Sturges wrote the film w/  McCrea in mind, which pleasantly surprised the actor. He credited the director w/ instilling confidence and treating him as if he were a bigger star than Clark Gable. Sullivan plans to make O Brother, Where Art Thou? (a title borrowed by Joel and Ethan Coen for their 2000 film). The author of the book Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? is “Sinclair Beckstein,” an mash-up of Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and John Steinbeck. Directors Peter Bogdanovich and Stephen Spielberg have spoken re: how this film influences their work.

Policeman: How does the girl fit into the picture?

Sullivan: There’s always a girl in the picture. What’s the matter, don’t you go to the movies?

Barbara Stanwyck was Sturges’ first choice for The Girl; studio execs suggested Ida Lupino, Lucille Ball, Frances Farmer and Ruby Keeler. Lake was pregnant during the making of this movie (6-8 mos)! The only people (in the production) who knew were the costume designer Edith Head and Sturges’s then-wife, Louise. Head designed costumes to hide the condition. Lake was afraid that she wouldn’t be allowed to make the film if her advanced state of pregnancy was known (b/c of the physical demands of the role). The Girl has some clever lines which may make modern viewers think of the #MeToo movement!

Filled with pathos and poignancy, Sturges’ film is an insightful sojourn across the territory of the human condition. It’ll make you laugh and it’ll make you cry, as along with Sullivan you come face to face with some hard truths about reality.

Some very enjoyable references to socially conscious movie-making, to Ernst Lubitsch in particular, make this particularly fun with some knowledge of the period and the films mentioned, albeit not necessary. And almost worth seeing alone for Veronica Lake’s memorable performance as a failed starlet.

Sturges’ most daringly double-edged film, laced with bitter ironies. It is also arguably the most audacious film in Hollywood’s (mainstream) history, audacious because it takes the kinds of risks that can so easily fall flat on their face, and right until the final image, as Sturges becomes increasingly ambitious and multi-layered, you wonder how long he can keep it up without getting ridiculous. It never does…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

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