Here’s a film that’s self-aware, a film that comments on films and filmmaking at the same time it’s attempting to work as a fictional film itself. It’s a rambling, almost picaresque melodramatic-comedy-satire as full of cynicism as it is sentimentality. It’s an illusive and allusive odyssey, borrowing and citing from films of the past and incorporating a rich array of genres, styles, tones and cinematic devices. It has a little bit of everything: romance, drama, action, comedy, sharp writing, metafiction, montage, screwball, sociocultural substance—all wrapped up in a kaleidoscopic enigma that never makes it quite clear if it’s winking at us knowingly, or attempting to take itself seriously. No, it’s not a Tarantino film, or even a Godard film; it’s a masterpiece from the golden age of a Hollywood by the name of Sullivan’s Travels from a director, Preston Sturges, who was light years ahead of his time.
The film opens with what must surely be one of the most audaciously original concepts ever: Sturges thrusts us right into a fistfight on a speeding train. Eventually, the two combatants fall into the river and a “The End” title card emerges from the water. What’s happened? Did my DVD player somehow skip to the last chapter or, if I was in a theater, did they load the wrong reel? No, it is, indeed, the end of director John Lloyd Sullivan’s (Joel McCrea) latest film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” as it is being screened for the studio. Sullivan, a lifelong director of light comedies, has finally been inspired to create a serious tragic drama about the war, full of symbolism indicating how greed can destroy a society. The bad part is, the studio isn’t buying it.
The studio heads believe Sullivan has no connection with the poor and needy and couldn’t possibly make a film depicting their condition. Sullivan objects, but soon realizes that they’re right. So he comes up with an ingenious (or crazy) plan to “go undercover” as a hobo and explore the life of poverty. Even though everyone objects, they ultimately can’t stand in his way. Near the start of his journey, Sullivan meets a mysterious but drop-dead gorgeous woman (Veronica Lake, who’s never given a proper character name) who buys him some ham and eggs and tells him how she’s had enough of Hollywood and wants to go home. But Sullivan convinces her to let him take her to his place, and when she finds out his plan and who he is she insists on coming with him.
Sturges has often been praised as one of the first writers to successfully make the leap to directing, though that legacy is a bit over-hyped. Charlie Chaplin was obviously the first great cinematic omni-auteur who was involved in nearly every aspect of the filmmaking process. Howard Hawks, Frank Capra and Billy Wilder all preceded Sturges in the leap. But of that trio, Wilder was the only one that was equally successful as a writer and director, as both Hawks and Capra only wrote a handful of their best films. But this hardly diminishes Sturges achievement, and certainly no writer/director had a more brilliant output from 1940 to 1944. That five-year period was an explosive one for filmmaking in general, but Sturges unleashed a concentrated creative outburst during it the likes of which has never been seen before or since, ultimately resulting in a filmography more substantial than most filmmakers achieve in a lifetime.
During that period of creative eruption, Sullivan’s Travels stands alongside The Lady Eve as Sturges most highly praised and acclaimed film. But if their eminence is in doubt, there’s little doubting which is the more complex effort. Sullivan’s Travels is Sturges shooting at the moon in an attempt to transcend the industrial homogeneity of the Hollywood studio system to produce a genuine piece of art within its orbit. The first third alone encapsulates the film’s heterogeneous and ambitious blending of ideas, styles and genres, shifting from a film-within-a film to Sturges’ lightning dialogue exchanges, to the farcical comedy, to a screwball action chase, to the first romantic encounter. In that context, Sullivan’s Travels is no small miracle; it’s a film that works as as a superior slice of classic Hollywood entertainment but with unprecedented artistry and sophistication that, along with directors like Wilder, paved the way for the writer/director centric auteur theory some 20 years later.
There’s little denying Sturges’ talent as a writer, and, from the era, perhaps only Wilder and Herman Mankiewicz could challenge him. The narrative pacing of the screenplay proves deceptively twisty, almost counter-intuitive in its refusal to go where one would expect. But one thing that especially marks all of Sturges’ scripts is a remarkable naturalness; Sullivan’s Travels (and all of Sturges films from the era) are full of dialogue that would work as well if they were written today. But, beyond the dialogue, Sturges has an unprecedented ability to seamlessly meld genre and styles while keeping them anchored to wonderfully funny, humanistic and sympathetic character, all while keeping an eye on the film’s subtext and themes, which can shift from the subtle and nuanced to the expositional moments that spell out their message. It’s in the latter moments that Sturges seems to be playfully mocking such “message films” while still perhaps believing in the message that’s being delivered.
Indeed, the film’s themes seem embedded in its cinematic amalgamation, constantly expressing the conflict between serious artistic ambition and the need to make films as economically sound pieces of mass entertainment. But Sturges’ greatest feat may be in the ambiguousness with which that idea is embodied in the film itself. Like Sullivan, Sturges is concerned about the limitations of film to effect any real change, yet that hardly erases the desire of the artist to try and speak profoundly about life and society. But how is it possible to do that through a medium that needs money to finance when high art doesn’t sell to an audience? In the same way that Sullivan concludes that laughter is a great gift that brings relief to those who are genuinely suffering, Sturges seems to realize that too, choosing to create a film that’s comedic about its seriousness, or, perhaps, serious about its comedy.
If Sturges’ writing has been praised it’s often been at the unfair expense of his direction, which, in truth, could be as cinematic as anyone in Hollywood when he wanted it to. Sullivan’s Travels perhaps displays his directorial talent better than any of his other films. The next-to-opening scene has Sturges orchestrating a four-plus minute long-take—a technique that Welles would be praised for using the same year in Citizen Kane. A superb six-plus minute montage closes the second act, finding Sullivan and Lake making their way through the impoverished community of hobos, drifting from the streets to the cramped sleeping homes to the dumpsters in search of food. Sturges even injects a little noir-thriller lighting into the scene that has Sullivan stalked by a greedy hobo. In truth, his nuanced touch can be seen throughout, but, as with most examples from classic Hollywood, it’s rarely ostentatious enough to draw attention to itself.
Sturges always stuffed his films with the finest talent from top-to-bottom and had a knack for selecting just the right pieces amongst many choices. In Joel McCrea, Sturges smartly chose a likable everyman instead of a more urbane actor that would have been a closer analog to Sturges’ own persona. McCrea is the type of actor who can utter a single line and you instantly feel his down-to-earth genuineness. Veronica Lake serves a double role as both a knockout sex-bomb, but also as an accomplished comedienne. In the laugh department she serves as a catalyst for much of the film’s events, and is arguably even more naturally funny than McCrea. Yet her levity provides a wonderful contrast to McCrea’s sincerity, and the chemistry of the two is consistently pitch-perfect.
Any attempts at negative criticism seem superfluous in the face of such brilliance, but it is possible. For all of Sturges’ naturalism he does offer some rather caricatured black characters. The film’s third act doesn’t work quite as well as its first two, perhaps because it’s the only section that feels contrived and implausible, and because it separates the great pairing of Lake and McCrea. The story can seem meandering to the point it borders on discursiveness. But all of these elements also play into many of the film’s strengths and would likely be more detrimental if Sturges hadn’t done everything possible to solicit and gain our sympathies while providing a wealth of entertainment.
Much like the film Sullivan was pitching, one wonders how Sturges sold the idea of this film to the studios. Ostensibly he pitched it as a comedy. But the deeper truth is that Sullivan’s Travels is a distilled explosion of one of classic Hollywood’s singular geniuses. It may not have been the first film about Hollywood and filmmaking produced in Hollywood, but it may very well be the best. Unlike its hero, Sturges may ultimately realize that he needn’t choose between drama and comedy, between genres, or even between sophisticated artistry and superficial entertainment. Film proves to be a medium in which a talented director can synthesize it all, and Sullivan’s Travels is one of the greatest pieces of cinematic synthesis in film history.