Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Preston Sturges | 1hr 30min

Preston Sturges was known more for his sharp turns of phrase, pacey editing, and unrelenting slapstick than his mise-en-scène, but Sullivan’s Travels combines all of his usual trademarks with surprising flashes of visual beauty. These mostly appear in the final act when Sullivan winds up in a chain gang and the entire movie takes a far darker turn, but even before this point it works wonderfully as a quick-witted satire of Hollywood liberalism and privilege.

Sturges opens the film in media res, at what appears to be the climax of an entirely different movie.

“You see the symbolism of it? Capital and Labor destroy each other. It teaches a moral lesson. It has social significance.”

Sullivan is inspired. He wants to make a real movie about real issues, confronting problems that the average American faces every day.

An image of poverty that the wealthy imagine it to be – a rucksack and a baggy coat. Hilariously clueless, but formally setting up the hard-hitting third act well.

“But with a little sex,” his producers continue to insist. Therein lies the problem. If there was ever a studio that could authentically bring rough living conditions to the screen, it isn’t the one Sullivan works for, and Sullivan certainly shouldn’t be the one helming that project. The Italian neorealism movement would prove a few years later that cinema can absolutely treat this sort of subject matter with compassion and authenticity, but those movies were being made by filmmakers with firsthand experience. To Sullivan, stepping into the shoes of the impoverished would serve to assuage some of his class guilt, and he might make a tidy profit out of it on the side. Adding “a little sex” is the studio’s push to romanticise the subject matter, making it conventionally appealing for their audiences who just want a laugh.

A slapstick interlude placed with purpose and precision.

Sullivan’s Travels is also a direct response to early Hollywood comedies that abandoned humour in favour of serious, hard-hitting messages. Sturges’ approach is a complex balancing act of conflicting tones which many directors might struggle to pull off, but this is his specialty. He dances around the real darkness at the heart of the story for the first two acts, playing in the realm of slapstick comedy, irony, and meta-humour. Sullivan’s first attempt to understand the poor is really just him walking around with a rucksack and tattered coat, followed closely by a bus of security, food caterers, and a legal team. As he attempts to shake them off and the bus speeds after him, Sturges has fun sending everyone in it into a tizzy, falling over at all angles, one man even putting his head right through its ceiling. Then Veronica Lake is introduced, and the film delivers its most direct acknowledgement of its own genre conventions.

“How does the girl fit in the picture?”
“There’s always a girl in the picture?”

Credited only as “the woman”, she is there to serve the exact function stated in the text. She tags along, because it is what the film requires of her. But as an actress, Veronica Lake isn’t just filling a part. With her husky voice and plucky attitude she channels all of her charm and glamour into the role, stealing every second of screen time from her co-stars. She serves to underline the part of movies that audiences keep coming back for – that “little bit of sex”.

Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake in two of their best performances, a perfect screwball couple.

So when Sullivan is suddenly assaulted, beaten unconscious, and sentenced to serve time in a chain gang, it is understandable why Lake is pushed to the background. It is a shocking narrative twist, but not entirely unexpected given how much time has been spent with Sullivan wondering it is like to live in poverty. In an earlier montage when he sleeps in a homeless shelter, he worries that his boots which contain his identification have been stolen, setting up the actual theft that takes place during this major plot shift. Now, he is stuck without a name or path back home.

The scene in which he is stalked by the homeless man looking for money is a stunner. Almost entirely silent, it is heavily expressionistic in the light and shadows that are thrown across the train tracks. He skulks behind staircases and trains puffing out steam in the dead of night, perfectly leading us into the darkest section of the film. We realise that all the comedy that has come before this point has merely been distracting us from the actual darkness at its heart, because suddenly all of that humour is gone. Without his status or identity to fall back on, Sullivan is no longer shielded from the dirtiness, violence, and roughness of “real” life.

Sturges’ camera suddenly becomes a lot more active in this final act. He isn’t trying to make this a truthful depiction of poverty, as his own screenplay has already made the argument for why Hollywood cinema isn’t suited to that. Instead he just wants to treat it sensitively, letting a sort of poignancy emerge that acts as a substitute for authenticity. The prisoners of Sullivan’s chain gang are welcomed to a Southern Black church, and Sturges makes the choice to frame the prisoners in gorgeous silhouette walking towards it, as the churchgoers sing a soulful rendition of “Let My People Go”. Inside the aisle symmetrically divides the church in two, and we gaze right down the middle at the prisoners’ feet moving towards us, chains clanking as they walk. It may be the slowest scene of any Sturges film, but this change of pace also marks the change in Sullivan’s character as he becomes more pensive.

An ambitious narrative taking a sudden dark turn. Sturges has never been so solemn, and he pulls it off with aplomb.

Dour atmospheres can’t last forever in Sturges films though. He gives us just enough moodiness so that when the comedy arrives again in the form of a classic Sturges montage, we eagerly embrace it. Newspaper headlines, studio producers running around barging into rooms, making phone calls, and getting on planes – Sullivan makes his way back to the glamourous city of Hollywood with a fresh outlook on life. Maybe the superficiality of the movies he makes is disconnected from reality, but so what? Disconnecting someone from reality might be the best thing you could do for someone whose reality is pretty terrible. Sturges’ real passion was screwball comedies, but as a comment on the limits of Hollywood moviemaking, this certainly seems like his most personal work.

Sullivan’s Travels is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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