Turner Classic Movies will show one of my all-time favorite movies, “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) Thursday night at 9:15 p.m. Central (10:15 for you easterners).
It’s directed by one of my favorite comedy directors, Preston Surges, and stars Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake (along with a lot of Sturges regulars like William Demarest). It’s a movie that is, in some ways, more relevant now than when it was first made. I’ve blogged about it before, but (as with “Christmas In Connecticut” earlier in the week) I feel like doing so again.
John L. Sullivan (McCrea) is a movie director who spent the 1930s making silly musical comedies like “Hey Hey in the Hayloft” and “Ants In Your Pants of 1939.” But he yearns to make a Serious Movie about Serious Issues of poverty and disenfranchisement. He’s picked out a “Grapes of Wrath”-style novel he wants to adapt for the screen. Sturges, when writing “Sullivan’s Travels,” just made up a title and author for the novel: “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” by Sinclair Beckstein. “Sinclair Beckstein,” of course, is a reference to Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck. “O Brother Where Art Thou” is a play on words which would have been funnier as a parody title in 1941, because the phrase “Oh, brother!” was more widely used as an exclamation of shocked annoyance. Joel and Ethan Coen, of course, are big fans of this movie and appropriated Sturges’ made-up title to turn it into an actual movie, released in 2000.
Sullivan pitches his idea for a Serious Movie to the heads of the studio where he’s under contract. They are extremely reluctant to mess with a good thing – Sullivan’s silly comedies have been making them a lot of money. But instead of just saying “no,” and alienating one of their top talents, they try to talk him out of it by pointing out that he came from a well-to-do family and has no first-hand knowledge of poverty.
He agrees with them that he lacks experience – but that only gives him an idea. He’ll go out into the world, dressed as a tramp, with the intention of observing poverty first-hand. Sturges recognizes, and shows us, how absurd that idea truly is, and teaches a very funny lesson about the folly of thinking you know someone else’s pain. But perhaps his primary message is that comedy – like “Sullivan’s Travels” itself – does a greater social good than we sometimes recognize.
But this isn’t a message movie – this is a funny movie, one which only coincidentally has a message or two. McCrea is absolutely perfect, and Veronica Lake is incredibly sexy. What a wonderful way to spend 90 minutes.