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John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a director of such lightweight fare as Ants in Your Plants of 1939 and So Long, Sarong, but he dreams instead of making a socially conscious drama, O Brother, Where Art Thou? He sells the studio executives on the picture and sets out on a trip across the country dressed in a hobo costume in order to learn about the miseries of the poor. The studio, however, sends an entourage of press, a secretary, even Sullivan's manservant and chauffeur to follow him, and Sullivan soon finds himself back in Hollywood. He meets a beautiful actress known as "The Girl" (Veronica Lake) and the two of them set off together on another journey among the downtrodden. This time, however, "Sully" is robbed and loses consciousness; he awakens on a freight car with no recollection of who he is. During a fight he is arrested and sentenced to work on a chain gang under a brutal prison warden. It is there, among the truly downtrodden, that he recovers his memory and discovers his true calling - to make comedies!

Producer: Paul Jones
Director: Preston Sturges
Screenplay: Preston Sturges
Cinematography: John Seitz
Art Direction: Hans Dreier and Earl Hedrick
Music: Leo Shuken, Charles Bradshaw
Cast: Joel McCrea (John L. Sullivan), Veronica Lake (The Girl), Robert Warwick (Mr. Lebrand), William Demarest (Mr. Jones), Franklin Pangborn (Mr. Casalsis), Robert Greig (Sullivan's Butler), Eric Blore (Sullivan's Valet), Georges Renavent (Old Tramp), Jess Lee Brooks (Black Preacher).


Preston Sturges burst onto the scene as a director in 1940. His brilliant career only produced about a dozen pictures, and the most fruitful part of it lasted only four years, but during that period he created some of the most daring, witty and fast-paced comedies in film history. By the time of his death in 1959, he had fallen out of favor, forgotten by Hollywood and movie audiences. But his films experienced a resurgence in the 1960s and continue to be screened today, giving critics and film lovers a chance to see what had made him one of the most celebrated screen artists of his time.

Sturges fans are usually split on their favorite movie: many prefer the sexual politics of The Lady Eve (1941) or The Palm Beach Story (1942); some like the over-the-top wartime satires, the ones that pushed the boundaries (and the censors' notions) of what was an acceptable comic target: Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944). But Sullivan's Travels is generally considered his most ambitious and personal film. It also contains in nearly equal measure some of his funniest and most dramatic scenes. One minute he pokes fun at a bored movie audience suffering through a dreary triple feature of "serious" dramas; the next minute he presents a powerful dramatic sequence (a tramp stalks, beats, and robs the central character and is then crushed under a moving train). Sullivan's Travels also features prime examples of just about every comic movie device Sturges employed in his career - not only his trademark verbal wit - but an abundance of visual gags involving car chases, pratfalls into swimming pools, amateur attempts to hop a freight train, and photographic portraits that change expression. And in this picture he took major risks he hadn't taken before by allowing for sudden shifts in tone - juxtaposing the brightly lit, sophisticated high-gloss look of Paramount pictures in the Hollywood scenes with dark, shadowy sequences among the poor and downtrodden people Sullivan meets on his journey.

What also stands out in this complex mix is Sturges' command of various cinema techniques. The scenes following Sullivan and the Girl on the road refer back to the kind of social documents Sullivan longs to make - The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Wild Boys of the Road (1933), The Kid (1921). Comic scenes are speeded up to emphasize the wacky humor. Whole passages of the story are told via a long montages with no dialogue, a daring concept for its day. He even stages an unconventional musical number with a black gospel choir and a chorus line of convicts chained at the ankles. He even refuses to give Veronica Lake's character a name (other than calling her "The Girl" in the credits) - after all, as Sullivan says, "There's always a girl in the picture; haven't you ever been to the movies?"

All these devices add up to more than mere film tricks. By focusing our attention on the artificial nature of the film industry, Sturges takes the audience down Sullivan's path to the truth he learns: This is Hollywood; these are movies; people don't go to movies to see real life, they go to be entertained. That may not be everyone's truth, but Sullivan's Travels is an indisputably entertaining and rewarding experience.

by Rob Nixon & James Steffen

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