Preston Sturges’s 1941 comedy, Sullivan’s Travels, doesn’t just satirize Hollywood but is the gold standard for satires about Hollywood.
I was in a mood to watch a comedy last night but especially a satire. What I didn’t know until after the fact is that this week is the 80th anniversary of the film’s initial release. Eighty years later, this is a film that still makes us laugh. Sure, some elements have changed in the industry but this film will never not be relevant.
Sturges starts off the film with the following dedication:
To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated.
All John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) wants to do is make a socially relevant drama. The problem? He’s a comedy director and the studio is having none of his efforts to make O Brother, Where Art Thou? But in order to make this film, Sullivan decides to set out on a journey because he thinks he hasn’t suffered enough. It’s quite the journey and after losing the studio staff, he ends meeting The Girl (Veronica Lake) in after returning to Los Angeles. Sullivan learns that she wants to break into the industry so he wants to return the favor after she buys him breakfast. The staff doesn’t know that he’s come home and so the car gets reported stolen. This is only the beginning!
Soon, Sullivan and The Girl hit the road again. It’s a success but he reveals that he’s actually in a loveless marriage. But before anybody can have a happy ending, his shoes are stolen, he gets attacked, and ends up in a box car where he wakes up in another city with no memory of how he got there. Sullivan ends up sentenced for six years at a work camp after hitting a yard bull. Later on, he learns from the newspaper that he’s apparently dead. Memories slowly come back after watching Walt Disney’s 1934 Mickey Mouse short film, Playful Pluto. He does the one thing he can do to get his photo in the paper: confess to John L. Sullivan’s murder! it’s a genius idea and certainly gets him out of jail. But because of his personal experiences, he realizes the value of making comedies.
The filmmaker goes for truth in the film’s closing lines spoken by John L. Sullivan : “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”
There’s a lot of talk about writing what you know. Or in the case of artists, it’s about making films that are drawn from their own experiences. Given that Sullivan is a comedy filmmaker, it makes perfect sense to live like a tramp before making a socially relevant drama. Studio head Mr. LeBrand (Robert Warwick) would rather Sullivan make a comedy because the films make money. Studios want films that make money so wanting a comedy makes sense. When it was released in December 1941, the United States was coming out of the Great Depression and in a state of war. For what it’s worth, the initial critics screening was just before Pearl Harbor. In Sturges’s case, his autobiography reveals that this film was written in response to the “preaching” in other comedy movies “which seemed to have abandoned the fun in favor of the message.”
Other filmmakers might not treat Black people with respect on screen. Sturges is very respectful of their portrayal. He treats them with dignity.
Legendary costume designer Edith Head really has her work cut out in the film. Upon going into production, Veronica Lake revealed that she was six months pregnant. Being the Golden Age of Hollywood and her not being a big screen star, Sturges could not really work around her pregnancy. What this means is Head had to design costumes that could hide Lake’s pregnancy.
Here’s the thing about Sullivan’s Travels: the film became a classic over time, not overnight. Where some critics and organizations lauded the film upon its release, others didn’t give it the same acclaim (The Hollywood Reporter, The New Yorker). I say this because satire is not easy. It might hit in your face or go over the head. There have been many satires made about Hollywood over the years (The Beta Test is a recent one) but Sullivan’s Travels remains the gold standard.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Preston Sturges
CAST: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick, William Demarest, Margaret Hayes, Porter Hall, Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore
Paramount released Sullivan’s Travels in theaters on December 29, 1941.
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