Sullivan’s Travels, Blu-ray (1941/2015)
Director: Preston Sturges
Actors: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake
Studio: Universal/ The Criterion Collection 118 [4/14/15]
Video: 1.33:1 for 4:3 black & white 1080p HD
Audio: English PCM mono
Extras: Commentary track (2001) with comments from filmmakers Noah Baumback, Kenneth Bowser, Christopher Guest & Michael McKean; Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer – 1990 76-minute PBS documentary; Video essay by David Cairns & Bill Forsyth; 2001 interview with the director’s widow; 1951 interview with Sturges by columnist Hedda Hopper, Archival audio-only Sturges recordings; “Self-Portrait in a Fun-House Mirror” – essay in printed illustrated booklet by critic Stuart Klawans
Length: 90 minutes
Sturges was the first Hollywood screen writer (at a time when the screen writers were considered unimportant) to move into being a film director. His unequaled stint at Paramount from 1939 thru 1944 was an eight-film wonder, of which the fourth – this one – identifies Sturges with his trade. He creates John L. Sullivan the director, who wanders like a modern Gulliver thru strange locales in order to get the feel of being totally down and out since he plans to make a movie on that subject. At the same time he is shown to be an extremely valuable property to the studio.
The film opens with a couple of the studio heads arguing with Sullivan about the merits of his planned gloomy social-protest film. They know about films like The Grapes of Wrath, but this film that he wants to make – O Brother, Where Art Thou? – should be terrible for him. Sturges was getting one of the highest salaries in America at the time, and there’s many reference to what things cost in the film.
Somehow he hooks up with spunky and beautiful Veronica Lake, who insists on coming with him on his foray into the life of a tramp, trying to pass as his younger brother (which isn’t for a moment believable). Sturges doesn’t make much of her in the film. He eventually gets mugged by another tramp and left on a freight car, where upon awakening he is put upon by a railway inspector who he fights back using a rock. In the next scene he’s sentenced to six years on a chain gang, while the studio and public thinks he’s been killed. He gets the idea of confessing to killing Sullivan to get his picture in the newspaper and that gets him rescued by the studio. During his incarceration the chain gang members get an evening at a cartoon movie showing in a black church, and Sullivan is moved by the power of laughter for those having a hard time. In the end he decides not make O Brother, Where Art Thou? at all, but to make a comedy instead, and that ends the film.
Yes, there are some very dated things in the film, such as the black cook in the studio’s van chasing Sullivan falling into a pot of white batter, and Veronica Lake is not to be believed, but this is still a fine example of the great director’s work. I must admit I knew little about the director, but the PBS show was fascinating and increased appreciation of Sullivan’s Travels greatly. It said some of his work was an inspiration to Orson Welles.
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