Wednesday 12 May 2010

Sullivan's Travels (1941)

Director: Preston Sturges
Stars: Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Though he left only twelve films to posterity as a writer/director, Preston Sturges was renowned in the 1940s for his light comedies. Having seen six of his first seven, from Christmas in July in 1940 to Hail the Conquering Hero in 1944, I can understand that renown, as they comprise the most stunning five year output of anyone in the business. In the middle of these seven films he chose to make Sullivan's Travels, officially more of the same but at heart much more, nothing less than a personal statement of his views on the industry and medium he worked in and his creed as a filmmaker. He did this in a unique way: Preston Sturges, a successful light filmmaker wanting to say something of importance, made this film about John L Sullivan, a successful light filmmaker wanting to say something of importance. In doing so, Sturges equates himself with Sullivan from moment one but distances himself by succeeding where his character fails.

We begin at the end, literally: the finale of a recent movie. We only see one brief but important scene: a dramatic fight on the roof of a moving train that in overblown Hollywood language acts as a metaphor of the battle between labour and capital, each side killing the other in the end. It's nonsense, but it's nonsense that Sullivan understands and he's a Hollywood film director. He makes fluff, successful fluff like So Long Sarong, Hey Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Plants of 1939. Yet Sullivan wants to be taken seriously, to make a social statement, a film equivalent of the Great American Novel. It's easy to read this film as a plea for Hollywood to stick to making people laugh, especially as the US was about to enter World War II, but that's not quite the point. The point is that Hollywood can't see any common ground at all between fluff and substance, but this is proof that a film can be both at once. If Sturges can make it then so can Sullivan.

The catch is that Sullivan would have had to see this film to get the point, so he inevitably fails. He uses the labour vs capital fight movie and the fact that it's been held over for five weeks in the music halls to attempt to persuade the heads of his studio to let him make a film called O Brother, Where Art Thou? 'I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions,' he tells them, 'stark realism, the problems that confront the average man.' They just want a little sex. 'I want this picture to be a document,' he continues. 'I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity, a true canvas of the suffering of humanity.' They just want a little sex. He talks about 'the world committing suicide', 'corpses piling up in the street', 'grim death gargling at you from every corner'. They reply that perhaps audiences might like to forget that sort of thing and point out that he has no personal experience whatsoever with poverty or suffering.

They're just trying to talk him out of it, but it backfires and he decides to venture forth on what he calls a 'noble experiment': to dress up as a hobo and head out onto the road, with only ten cents for company, to experience these things first hand. He really isn't prepared, even having to solicit the help of his butler to look 'sufficiently seedy', but then his bosses are right and the only trouble he's ever really had is having to deal with his wife asking for money on the fifteenth of every month. So he sets out by foot on his grand adventure, but finds it crippled by the fact that the studio sets a tricked out land yacht on his heels, containing journalists, photographers, even a doctor, all set on making his exploration of suffering as pleasant as can be. This is Hollywood realism at its most hypocritical and even Sullivan can see that much, so he uses his knowledge of the language of cinema to escape from this situation.

Sullivan's Travels is set up just like Gulliver's Travels, right down to the book that's opened to provide our title sequence, but I get the impression that each of the voyages he sets out on has a direct parallel in the history of film and I'm intrigued to fathom the framework and whether it's intended to be strictly chronological. Certainly it starts right at the beginning, with old school slapstick comedy, Sullivan eluding the land yacht by hitching a lift with a thirteen year old boy in a home built, high powered go kart to lead them on a merry chase. This plays out just like the Keystone Kops, with the pursuers thrown around shamelessly and, in a bizarre parody of one of the most dubious screen practices of the time, the token black cook even ends up in whiteface. Ending when the land yacht crashes into a hay cart, Sullivan effectively outdoes them through his knowledge of film and in doing so manages to barter some room to head out on his own.
The first voyage proper seems to be a sex comedy, in which Sullivan pays the traditional price for room and board by chopping up everything in the woodpile of a lonely and lecherous widow and her sister. Once done they treat him to a trip to the cinema where he gets to experience a serious picture from the cheap seats, the distracted noises of these bored common people not making any impact on his intentions to give them more of what they don't want. He doesn't just have to deal with crying babies and rustling sweet wrappers but also the unwelcome straying hands of his benefactress. So that night he promptly escapes their inevitable designs, losing the seat of his pants and dunking himself in a barrel of water in the process. 'What did you fall into?' asks a friendly driver who gives him a lift. 'Everything there was,' he replies. Unfortunately he's woken up in the morning to find himself right back in Hollywood where he started.

It's here that we're introduced to the girl, who buys him ham and eggs at a roadside diner even though she's leaving town in an evening dress after failing to break it big in Hollywood. We're never given a name but then that's never important, as is explained by a telling bit of dialogue at the police station. Sullivan tries to help her out by giving her a lift, in his own car even though he has to pretend otherwise, but they're picked up for grand theft auto. The sergeant asks him, 'How does the girl fit in this picture?' He answers, 'There's always a girl in the picture. Haven't you ever been to the movies?' Of course by this point he's unable to keep the charade up any longer and has to come clean, but amazingly, she wants to join him on his noble experiment, if only to keep him safe. She tells him, 'You don't know anything about anything. You don't know how to get a meal. You don't know how to keep a secret. And you can't even stay out of town.'

This pair are a rather surprising double act who look more than a little strange, partly because of the clothes we see them in and partly because they're so massively different in height. Sullivan is played by Joel McCrea, so well known as a western hero that he once said that he was never offered a script until Gary Cooper had already turned it down. He was a natural on a horse and even kept a working ranch so it's hardly surprising that he rarely appeared in anything else but westerns as of the mid forties, but earlier in his career he was a little more versatile. To pick just three films from one year: in 1932 he took to the skies in the aviation drama, The Lost Squadron, played the exotic Dolores del Rio's love interest in Bird of Paradise, and was hunted for sport in the horror movie The Most Dangerous Game. He also had a talent for comedy, following up this film for Preston Sturges with two more, The Palm Beach Story and The Great Moment.

He looks a little strange dressed down in worn out boots and ripped clothing, though any name movie star would, but much more surprising than Joel McCrea in such garb is his leading lady. The girl in the picture is no less a glamour icon than Veronica Lake, she of the elegant peekaboo hairstyle that became the film's chief advertising gimmick given that the studio couldn't work out how else to market the picture. This was her first great role as an actress after a number of bit parts and uncredited performances, and she does a fine job, even though she began it six months pregnant and spends half her time in hardly flattering attire. 'You look about as much like a boy as Mae West,' he tells her, but she has fun spoofing her glamorous image, brushing her teeth with her fingers and wiping down her eyebrows. She was under five feet tall, no less than sixteen inches shorter than Joel McCrea and the difference is frequently obvious.

With the girl in tow, the second voyage delves right into social drama, even though it's set up in a memorably ludicrous way. They want to hop a freight train bound for Las Vegas and they do succeed in that, leaping onto the moving train outside the yards along with a whole host of other hoboes, but they're delivered to the spot by chauffeur after Sullivan's butler and valet ring the railroad to ask just where tramps do such things. The train scenes are well shot, reminding of William A Wellman dramas of the thirties like Wild Boys of the Road, but they also contain telling reactions that, yet again, Sullivan ignores. Clambering on board in front of a couple of old timers who mutter 'Amateurs!' at their ineptitude, this is the first time that Sullivan meets a couple of real tramps but when he asks them what they they think of the labour situation they promptly leave for another railroad car. They don't want to know.
At least they experience something of what they aim at, discomfort, hunger and fever. One real night on his noble experiment and Sullivan catches a cold, unable even to buy a cup of coffee because he's forgotten he'd already spent his ten cents elsewhere. However, purely by chance, they've ended up where they were supposed to end up, and the land yacht once more comes to their rescue, though it takes them right back to Hollywood yet again. This is a rather obvious but very telling analogy, Hollywood meaning both Sullivan's home and the world of the movies, as if pointing out to him that he's never going to escape the way the industry thinks, however hard he tries. Of course while it's a telling analogy to us, he's a Hollywood movie director so ignores it yet again and sets out for his third voyage, this time delving into Charlie Chaplin territory, not only through the timeless imagery of the Little Tramp.

It's told without dialogue and phrased with the pathos so recognisable from the later Chaplin silents. Incidentally 'pathos' is a word that tends to be used to describe artistic appeals to our emotions, but it's derived from the Greek for 'suffering' or 'experience', making it a highly appropriate tool for Sullivan's third voyage, the shortest but the one that makes the difference. Sullivan could ignore the drama and the melodrama but he can't ignore the pathos he discovers in a shanty town, along with an omnipresent hope of escape and a sad knowledge that it isn't likely. He and the girl experience a Salvation Army soup kitchen, a fumigation shelter, a mission with a fire and brimstone preacher. They sleep on a flophouse floor that is so packed they can hardly find space to lie down, below a sign reading, 'Have you written home to mother?' Waking up to find his boots stolen, they find romance but end up picking through garbage and it's over.

Of course the studio, who opposed the very concept, is now enthused with it, drumming up press as a publicist explains that Sullivan will hand out a thousand dollars to tramps, five bucks a pop. It's here that his reality check kicks in, because the fourth voyage isn't one of his choosing. The very same bum that stole his boots follows him into a train yard and slugs him over the head, thus sparking a surreal journey into the dark side: a horrible death on the train tracks, a Kafka-esque nightmare of a courtroom, a brutal prison drama in the deepsouth. There are a number of amazing scenes here, the most powerful being one in a southern church, where the prisoners watch a Disney cartoon called Playful Pluto and Sullivan learns once more about the power of human laughter. Of course he still doesn't get the point, because the experience only flips him back from utter seriousness to fluffy frivolity because in Hollywood that's all there is.

What Sturges does in this scene is truly amazing because while it's a demonstration of the flaws of the Hollywood system, using Sullivan as an object lesson, it's also a demonstration of just how possible it is to change. This church is a black church and it offers us a serious counterpoint to the early scene with the token black character in a slapstick comedy. Just as that reverses the usual take on race by putting a black man in whiteface, this scene shows us a whole slew of black characters with complete dignity, something Hollywood seemed utterly unable or unwilling to do. 'We's all equal in the sight of God,' the preacher tells his flock, talking about those less fortunate than them, in other words the white 'guests' who are going to take up the first three pews. Walter White, the Secretary of the NAACP, wrote to Sturges congratulating and thanking him for this sequence because of the 'dignified and decent treatment of Negroes in this scene.'

Sadly, the message wasn't particularly acknowledged. Most viewers and even some critics saw it in overly simplistic terms, that with war on the horizon people just wanted an excuse to laugh. Those who did realise the true depth of this film lauded it to high heaven. The National Board of Review nominated it as the best film of the year and it has been described by Hal Erickson as 'one of the finest movies about movies ever made'. Nowadays it crops up quite a bit in popular culture, usually as an unexpected gem, a film that you probably haven't heard of but that might just change your life. Joel and Ethan Coen, acknowledged fans of Preston Sturges, even went as far as to actually make O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the statement on the human condition that Sullivan gave up on. They of course had the one benefit that he didn't have: they saw Sullivan's Travels. It's easy to read the Coens' film as what Sullivan could have made had he seen this one.

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