A message movie disguised as a frothy comedy when it isn’t a frothy comedy disguised as a message movie, Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is an inside-baseball satire on Hollywood’s self-importance and philistinism. It’s also a movie that both demonstrates and argues for the director as the “author” of a movie. Decades of film theory have rendered this idea a cliché by now, but at the height of the studio system, it was not a little presumptuous. A star director like Frank Capra (specifically name-dropped in Sullivan’s Travels) could get away with using “his” movies to say a little something, but most directors were expected to keep the machine running smoothly and deliver the product that the studio wanted, nothing more. As a self-sufficient writer-director, essentially the first of his kind in the talkie era, Preston Sturges commanded more control over his films than most. His main character in this film, John L. Sullivan (played by Joel McCrea), is likewise a film director, butting heads with the studio about his plans to make a movie his way for a change.
The exquisite irony is that, while the movie itself is a fine example of an independent-minded director saying what he wants to say — the title card, rendered, like so many Disney films, as a storybook cover, bluntly labels the movie “Sullivan’s Travels by Preston Sturges” — the story it tells is essentially a ninety-minute argument that John Sullivan is wrong. Having won success as a director of comedies and revues, Sullivan grows tired of serving up escapism in the middle of the Great Depression. He sets his eyes on a social realist novel called O Brother, Where Art Thou? for his next project. The studio brass contend that Sullivan’s coddled life has not prepared him to manage a story about poverty. (This point, too, works off the assumption that a director is not a mere craftsman, but someone whose specific point of view is important enough to make or break a movie.) Reluctantly agreeing, Sullivan sets out on an experiment: to experience homelessness for a brief period of time, just long enough to know how to make O Brother, Where Art Thou? Everyone along the way warns him that he’s on the wrong track, but he stubbornly continues until things inevitably get out of hand.
Arguably the most impressive quality of Sullivan’s Travels is the film’s consistent ability to be whatever it’s mocking at any given moment — and to be a superlative example of that thing. The opening sequence, a fight atop a rushing train that’s soon revealed to be the grand finale of Sullivan’s latest movie, is as exciting as any setpiece from a real action movie. This excitement is hardly dulled by Sullivan opening his mouth to explain that the two men onscreen represent Capital and Labor, locked in a hopeless struggle. From here, Sullivan continually pushes to incorporate political statements into his work, while the movie continually pulls him back toward what he already does best. In so doing, the movie makes a great many political statements of its own. There’s nothing hypocritical in this. It’s not that Hollywood can’t do political films; rather, it’s that the system can’t be counted on to make its politics consistent or useful. Sturges was a wordsmith, but even he trusted the story and images to have more of a political impact than any symbolism or speeches. And so, interspersed with comic misadventures, we see a justice system that punishes the rich with a slap on the wrist and the poor with years of torment. We see the generosity of shop owners and wannabe starlets. And we see a Black church offering grace and welcome to prisoners. The film’s final act leans heavily on social drama, and this also is as tense and powerful as any prison film made before or since.
But let’s not forget that this is a comedy above all. Sturges had a legendary flair for verbal wit, honed over a solid decade of writing, first on Broadway plays, and then on Hollywood scripts throughout the 1930s. His reliable troupe of character actors in small roles is always given just as many zingers as the leads. Everything is timed with jackhammer speed — not quite the overlapping hyperactivity of His Girl Friday, but without very many breaks for air. There are amusing misunderstandings involving pronouns, and some fun is had with the thick dialect of the common cold. Most eye-opening for me when I first saw the film, as a young cinephile with little knowledge of the Production Code Era outside a handful of classics, is the immortal phrase “with a little sex in it.”
The comedy isn’t merely a matter of funny lines, either. A genius visual gag, in which a portrait on the wall changes its facial expression from shot to shot, has been imitated many times since. Some of the slapstick works, and some doesn’t. I like an early chase sequence involving Sullivan trying to outrun his retinue, but a later scene in which several people fall/are pushed into a pool is neither subtle nor convincing. The most notable wordless sequence is mostly serious — Sullivan and his new friend, the wannabe actress credited only as “The Girl” (Veronica Lake), experiencing life in a shantytown — but it includes the image of Sullivan waking up on the floor with his bare feet in the extreme foreground of the shot, his shoes having been stolen. The climactic moments of the entire film are an ode to the universal delights of wordless comedy; namely, the Disney cartoon Playful Pluto (1934).
Film writing that focuses on the director naturally tends to obscure or even deny the work of other essential collaborators. This should be avoided if at all possible. Let it be said that Sullivan’s Travels would not work nearly as well without the accomplished cinematographer John Seitz lending visual integrity to the film’s many tonal shifts, or without the even more prolific costume designer Edith Head poking fun at her own job via the raggedy get-up she provides for Sullivan’s slumming experiment. But these elements are brought together by a creative mind in firm control of what he wanted to put on the screen. With this and other films, Sturges joined a long line of comic filmmakers who understood that one of the keys to good comedy is having a strong hand behind the scenes, no matter how chaotic those scenes appear. His four-year run at Paramount in the early 1940s is a small miracle, but it wasn’t destined to last. Differences of opinion with producers ultimately undid his career, as the producer was still king in Hollywood. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to see the tide turn, but film culture is firmly in his corner now. His films will endure, offering laughs, social value, and a little sex for many years to come.