Writer-director Preston Sturges would make a string of classic comedies through the 1940s, but his best, the definitive Sturges film, is Sullivan’s Travels. It argues for a position near and dear to my heart: the nobility and value of comedy in a world beset by tragedy, poverty, and war.
Joel McCrea plays John Sullivan, a successful but artistically discontented Hollywood director. Sullivan wants to break out of the world of what he thinks of as frivolous musical comedy and make something serious, something important that speaks to their troubled times, something that will shed light on the plight of the poor. He sets his sights on a Grapes of Wrath-type novel O Brother Where Art Thou? (by Sinclair Beckstein) The studio executives, horrified at the prospect of another high-brow bomb, push Sullivan to direct a sequel to his smash hit, Ants in Your Pants of 1939.
Sullivan, however, doesn’t back down, but when one executive asks what he knows about trouble, he has an epiphany. He realizes that he doesn’t know anything about standing in a breadline, scrounging for food in trash cans, or tramping in boxcars, so what could he possibly have to say about it? Sullivan hatches a plot to disguise himself as a hobo and go on the road to experience a life of poverty. While Sullivan sees this as a research opportunity, the studio smells a great chance for publicity.
So Sullivan dresses himself in rags and sets out to experience life as a hobo, but the studio steps in and turns the experience into a circus as an army of publicists follows him in a luxurious bus. That is until he meets a penniless would-be actress who agrees to show him the ropes. Veronica Lake shines as the cynical actress worn out by Hollywood casting couches and an avalanche of nos. Together they shake the publicity hounds and embark on a journey that is at turns hilarious and tragic.
Sturges’ script – like most of all his scripts – is witty and bright. My favorite exchange occurs as Sullivan is trying to convince the studio executives that there is a market for serious movies about the evils of unregulated capitalism by citing a heavy picture that ran for six weeks at the Radio City Music Hall. When an executive points out that the same film closed after a week in Pittsburgh. Sullivan: What do they know? Exec: They know what they like. Sullivan: If they knew what they liked they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh.
Exchanges like these reveal Sturges’ disdain for elite do-gooders who want to make serious films to uplift the poor, to give them a voice. Don’t they already have voices? And if they choose not to use them for issues educated elites think they should, maybe it’s for reasons other than ignorance, laziness, or apathy. Maybe they understand their situation just fine and don’t need to be lectured to by people who eat three square meals a day and have no idea what they’re talking about. Sullivan’s butler tries to talk him out of his excursion by arguing that the poor already know about poverty and “only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.” He goes on to say: “You see, sir, rich people and theorists, who are usually rich people, think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches, as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn’t, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned.” (After the butler leaves the room, Sullivan leans to his valet and says, “Say, he gets kind of morbid sometimes.” His valet replies, suspiciously, “Always reading books, sir.”)
Sturges finds nothing low-brow about making people laugh, especially those people Sullivan sought to uplift and enlighten. And maybe a filmmaker (or writer) can make the same point with humor. It worked for Mark Twain and Will Rogers, why not Preston Sturges as well.