Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941) Comedy tends to age more poorly than most movie genres. After all, the spark of surprise or shock of the obscene in a great joke tends to be absorbed into pop culture pretty damn quickly. Most times when you dip back into a classic Hollywood comedy, the laughs are derived primarily from rhythm and delightfully dated syntax. It’s more of a novelty viewing experience, appreciating the quaintness of what used to amuse audiences rather than appreciating a movie as intended. Of course there are exceptions and one of the biggest is the work of writer/director Preston Sturges. One of the darling’s of the golden age of studio filmmaking, Sturges was the first screenwriter who transitioned into directing simply because his scripts were so damn good that studios were willing to take a chance and let the kid direct just to get his pages on the screen. Sturges delivered a string of impressive comedies that continue to connect, but if a single masterpiece needs to be singled out to highlight the unique talent of Preston Sturges, then it has to be Sullivan’s Travels. That makes it one of those movies that demands enshrinement in the Criterion Collection and wouldn’t ya know it? That happened. Thank god.
The film came about when many of Preston Sturges’ comedic filmmaking compatriots started abandoning their laugh factories in the 30s to make more serious and sincere dramas they felt were more appropriate for the Great Depression. Sturges of course found that sentiment ridiculous and made a movie dedicated to the sincere importance of makin’ em laugh (along with plenty of harsh drama along the way). Joel McCrea stars as a successful Hollywood comedy director determined to make an ‘important picture’ about harsh times and loss called O Brother, Where Art Thou? (not a coincidence). The only catch is that McCrea doesn’t know a thing about suffering after a life spent as a pampered success. So he decides to don a hobo costume, ride the rails, and learn how the 99% suffer. Along the way he meets up with Veronica Lake at the peak of her powers, who buddies up to him as a man on hard times, gets frustrated after learning his secret, and then eventually joins him on the road for some suffering love. If it all sounds light as air, that’s because the movie is…until it isn’t.
What makes Sullivan’s Travels such an extraordinary movie today is exactly what made it a disappointment at the box office in 1941: radical tonal shifts. This is a comedy to be sure, one of the greatest ever made. However, when Sturges gets down to depicting the harsh poverty and hopelessness of the Depression era, the director plays things beautifully straight. The filmmaker defined by machine gun dialogue exchanges ditches dialogue entirely for the bulk of his dark material and proves that he’s a genuinely gifted visual storyteller who rarely got a chance to showcase it in his verbose comedies. It all eventually peaks with an iconic sequence of a chain-gang watching a Disney cartoon and exploding in a burst of cathartic laughter. It’s impossible not to be moved by the sequence, transforming Sullivan’s Travels into the movie that Sturges seemed to be mocking early on. Then of course he ironically undercuts it all with a goofball Hollywood ending that would feel cheap were it not for the fact that it’s a more appropriately ironic conclusion to this weird and wild genre bender.
Sullivan’s Travels is the type of Hollywood movie that only a filmmaker at the peak of his success could convince a studio to finance (in addition to being a movie that mocks that very trend). The film opens with a fake action scene in a fake movie and then dips into nearly every genre in from there. It’s madcap, melodramatic, suspenseful, gentle, tragic, silly, sincere, and ironic all at once. It’s a movie that only Preston Sturges could have made, somehow managing to depart wildly from his usual screwball comedies while also ultimately feeling like his funniest work. The cast is filled with his stock company of actors, many of whom deliver their finest performances. One of the many tricks the Coen Brothers stole from Sturges was the way he was able to avoid his distinct scripts sounding like a single writer’s voice by filling the screen with diversely talented actors who can’t help but make the characters their own. It’s an ensemble piece and also a perfect star vehicle to the wonderful Veronica Lake. The film is filled with contradictions that somehow meld together perfectly. Aside from two stale slapstick sequences (one of which features some unfortunate, if gentle stereotyping), the film plays remarkably well today. It’s a personal art film via crowd-pleasing entertainment that everyone who considers themselves a film fan or snob needs to experience at least once.
As usual, Criterion has restored a print of Sullivan’s Travels with stunning results. No company is better at transferring black and white 35mm prints to HD and this disc is hardly an exception. Granted, Sturges’ film doesn’t contain many sequences that truly show off the depth and clarity afforded by Blu-ray like say The Third Man, but the sequences that do are extraordinary and well worth the upgrade. All of the special features from the previous Criterion DVD return, which is ideal since it was one of their best discs of the early 2000s. You’ll get an audio commentary by Sturges scholar Kenneth Bowser, Noah Baumbach, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean spouting off wonderful quips and insights. Even better is a full feature length documentary about Sturges from PBS that covers his extraordinary career with depth and charm (which has also been spiffed up to HD). Sturges’ daughter also serves up some memories and the director himself even appears via a very strange 50s radio interview. Finally, a lone new feature arrives in a video essay made by filmmaker David Cairns and the great Scottish director Bill Forsyth (Local Hero) discussing their love of Sturges and Sullivan’s Travels that somehow never overlaps with any of the older material in the special feature section. It’s a truly stacked disc for one of the great comedies in Hollywood history. A movie that even those who have never heard of Preston Sturges before should run out and buy immediately. By the time you’ve finished the movie and burned through the special feature section on this disc, you’ll be dedicated to the man for life. Do so immediately.