#6 — Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941)
This particular fifty film list should make it abundantly clear that I have a pronounced appreciation for the singular cinematic voice of writer-director Preston Sturges. I’d argue that no other filmmaker quite pulls together his collection of traits on the same piquant combo. Billy Wilder probably comes closest, with his mixture of bleakly brilliant comic cynicism and fundamental decency. Yet Wilder doesn’t have the same propensity for pointed social commentary nor a similar weakness for daffy pratfalls, presented not to deviously undercut the more serious subtext but for the far simpler reason that Sturges found them as funny as the trenchant witticisms. He had a decidedly egalitarian methodology to his films. All the tools at his disposal were worthy of the task at hand. Sullivan’s Travels, then, is the Sturges Doctrine condensed into a single film, pressed into a delectable ninety minutes.
In the film, Joel McCrea plays John Sullivan, a successful Hollywood movie director who has aspirations of putting aside the lighter fare with which he made his fortune. Instead, he wants to direct a feature called O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which will illuminate the plight of the common man. An immersive aspirant to cinematic veracity before his time, Sullivan decides the only way he can make a truthful film is to take to the rails himself, posing as a vagrant to deeply learn the travails of the beset modern man. Naturally, complications ensue, including Sullivan eventually finding himself in trouble with the law without means to prove his real identity. There is an upside, too. Out in the real world, Sullivan also meets a beautiful young woman (Veronica Lake), who provides insight into the challenges of those removed from wealth and fame, all while winning his heart. In a satisfying meta tweak of the conventions of the standard Hollywood material Sullivan is fleeing, Lake’s character is billed only as “The Girl.”
The layers of added awareness run through the entire film, leading straight to the satisfying moral of the story, one of the most famed in all of movies. Though Sullivan has been glumly set on making important movies, he comes to realize that the pure entertainment he’d churned out before has greater value than he previously believed. He sits with fellow prisoners sentenced to time in a labor camp as they enjoy a rare respite from their punishing work. As the men around him roar with laughter as a Walt Disney cartoon, Sullivan has an epiphany. The frivolity flickering before him provides at least as much relief to the downtrodden as any anguished explication of their shared plight. From Sturges, a maker of comedies, this could come across as defensive, but it is instead a celebration of the embedded power of all art, no matter how lofty it is deemed by the intellectual elite. With a deft narrative turn, Sullivan’s Travels becomes a great film that celebrates the greatness in all films.