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Sullivan's Travels

Sullivan's Travels(1942)

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teaser Sullivan's Travels (1942)

SYNOPSIS

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).
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Why SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS is Essential

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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teaser Sullivan's Travels (1942)

The cartoon that the chain gang and the black church congregation enjoy laughing at together is Walt Disney's Playful Pluto (1934).

The preposterous titles of Sullivan's supposedly frivolous entertainments manage to be absurd and yet somehow right for the Hollywood of that period: "So Long, Sarong," "Hey, Hey in the Hayloft," "Ants in Your Pants of 1939." On the other hand, the titles of the three "serious" pictures he goes to see with the two farm women are just as funny in their pretentious heaviness: "Beyond these Tears," "The Valley of the Shadow," "The Buzzard of Berlin."

No doubt Sturges meant for Sullivan's planned title for his social-drama epic to be equally satirical. But filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen so admired this movie and Sturges' work, they went ahead and made the John L. Sullivan flick that never was, a comedy about poor rural people and three prisoners on a chain gang called O Brother, Where Art Thou?. It was released in 2000 and proved to be a sleeper hit. The soundtrack album for it, featuring several bluegrass, gospel and blues musicans, became the top selling-movie soundtrack of the year.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser Sullivan's Travels (1942)

Sturges started as a writer in Hollywood, primarily at Paramount, where he scripted a number of acclaimed films, including Remember the Night (1940) with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray and Easy Living (1937) with Jean Arthur and Ray Milland. Both were directed by Mitchell Leisen. It has been suggested that Sturges' script for The Power and the Glory (1933) inspired some of the structure and themes of Orson Welles' and Herman Mankiewicz's Citizen Kane (1941).

Near the end of the Sullivan's Travels, Sturges himself can be glimpsed on camera behind Veronica Lake on the movie set.

Sturges used certain character actors so many times, they came to be known collectively as the "Sturges stock company." The following performers, who are featured in Sullivan's Travels, are listed with the total number of movies that made with Sturges: Porter Hall (4), Robert Warwick (6), Franklin Pangborn (6), Robert Greig (6), Esther Howard (7), and William Demarest (8). McCrea starred in two other films for Sturges: The Palm Beach Story (1942) and The Great Moment (1944).

Familiar Sturges supporting actor William Demarest is perhaps better known to later-day audiences as Uncle Charlie on the TV sitcom My Three Sons (1960-72). He was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar for his work in The Jolson Story (1946).

Cinematographer John Seitz got his start lensing Shirley Temple movies and some of the films in the MGM "Dr. Kildare" series. He was the director of photography for such notable film noirs as This Gun for Hire (1942), Double Indemnity (1944), and The Big Clock (1948). Perhaps his most famous work can be seen in Sunset Boulevard (1950). He worked with Sturges twice more, Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944).

The assistant director on the film was Anthony Mann, who later went on to direct movies himself, including some memorable crime dramas (Raw Deal (1948), Border Incident, 1949) and a series of critically respected Westerns with James Stewart in the 1950s (The Naked Spur (1953), The Man From Laramie, 1955).

Sturges' mother, Mary Desti, started her own cosmetics business after splitting from Sturges' father. It was under the auspices of his mother's company that young Preston invented a "kiss-proof" lipstick. Mother and son lived in Paris for a while, where Mary became friends with Isadora Duncan.

Memorable Quotes from SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS

OPENING TITLE: "To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated."

SULLIVAN (Joel McCrea): "I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity, a true canvas of the suffering of humanity."
LE BRAND (Robert Warwick): "But with a little sex."

LE BRAND: "Who goes to the Music Hall? Communists!"

SULLIVAN: "What do they know in Pittsburgh?"
HADRIAN (Porter Hall): "They know what they like."
SULLIVAN: "If they knew what they liked, they wouldn't live in Pittsburgh."

BUTLER (Robert Greig): "Rich people and theorists -who are usually rich people -think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches -as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn't, sir. Poverty isn't the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned."
SULLIVAN: "You seem to have made quite a study of it."

BUTLER: "Quite unwillingly, sir."

GIRL: "Oh, that was a wonderful scene. Of course it was stupid, but it was wonderful."

SULLIVAN: "There's always a girl in the picture. Haven't you ever been to the movies?"

GIRL: "You know the nice thing about buying food for a man is that you don't have to laugh at his jokes."

SULLIVAN: "There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that's all some people have? It isn't much but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan."

Compiled by Rob Nixon

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teaser Sullivan's Travels (1942)

Like John Huston, who made the transition from screenwriter to director at roughly the same time, Preston Sturges was one of the first of the sound-era screenwriters to direct his own material. His films never lost the qualities that made his screenplays for others so distinctive fast-paced, witty dialogue alternating with scenes of frenetic physical comedy, and narrative experimentation, conjoining styles, themes and cinematic elements.

"The man was a brilliant writer," Joel McCrea observed looking back. "He wrote dialogue I could just look at once and do." Co-star William Demarest agreed that an actor could learn Sturges' dialogue faster than anybody's.

The idea for the story, Sturges said, was the result of "an urge to tell some of my fellow filmwrights that they were getting a little too deep-dish and to leave the preaching to the preachers....Sullivan's Travels could really have been a little pamphlet sent around privately. Maybe it should have been."

Sturges wrote the script for Sullivan's Travels with one actor in mind: Joel McCrea. He liked the actor's low-key, no-nonsense sincerity exhibited in movies for such directors as DeMille, Wyler, LaCava, Vidor and others. McCrea, with characteristic modesty, said he felt Sturges knew he was malleable, unlike stars such as Cagney, whose strong personality dominated almost every one of his films. The actor and director had met casually years earlier on the set of The Power and the Glory (1933), where McCrea complimented Struges on his script for the film. They met again a few years later, and Sturges told McCrea of his ambition to direct. "They never put it on the screen just the way I write it, the way I would like to see it," McCrea said Sturges told him. Three years later, their paths crossed again in the Paramount commissary. "I've written a script for you," Sturges said. "No one writes a script for me," McCrea replied. "They write a script for Gary Cooper, and if they can't get him they use me." But the actor took a look at the script and loved it. It was one which Sturges had insisted "is all original with me, it's not taken from anything, it's all mine."

The writer-director was not exaggerating. The central character in Sullivan's Travels was a very successful writer-director, primarily of comedies (like Sturges), working for a studio where the director is king (like Paramount), a personal friend of Ernst Lubitsch (a fellow Paramount director and briefly head of production at the studio), and the sort of man who never had to experience the privations of poverty or the backbreak of hard manual labor (whether they had money or not, Sturges' mother made sure she and her son lived in high style). But while the script certainly drew on Sturges' experiences in Hollywood, it was no autobiography. In fact, Sturges said later he didn't necessarily share Sullivan's final conclusion that making people laugh through hard times was the best path for an artist...or even a worthy one. "I don't believe that now [the remaining days of the Great Depression and the start of World War II] is the time for comedies or tragedies or spy pictures or pictures without spies or historical dramas or musicals or pictures without music," he explained. "I believe that now is the time for all forms of art, and that now is always with us."

And he did not necessarily know Sullivan would come to that conclusion. Like any good writing, it was a process of discovery for its creator. When he started it, he said, he had no idea what Sullivan would find. Bit by bit, he stripped everything from his protagonist - money, health, name, pride, liberty until all that was left was his ability to laugh. "The less he had of other things, the more important became laughter," Sturges said. "So, as a purveyor of laughs, he regained the dignity of his profession and returned to Hollywood to make laughter."

Once he got his basic set-up and inspiration create a character, pose a problem, follow the character through the problem to its logical end - he barreled along. There was very little revision between first draft and what finally appeared on the screen. Not that he was entirely satisfied with the completed product. "The ending wasn't right, but I didn't know how to solve the problem, which was not only to show what Sullivan learned but also to tie up the love story," he said later. "It would have been very easy to make a big finish either way, but one would have defeated the other. There was probably a way of doing it, but I didn't happen to come across it. It might be profitable for a young director to look at Sullivan's Travels and try not to make the same mistakes I did."

by Rob Nixon

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teaser Sullivan's Travels (1942)

The part of John L. Sullivan was written for Joel McCrea, and it fit him to a tee. The experience of making Sullivan's Travels was a good one for him, and he credited Sturges with instilling confidence and treating him as if he were a bigger star than Gable. "I have to say the money I got for it was unnecessary," McCrea said later in life. "I don't know any other director where I had so much fun. I really felt like I'd do it for nothing."

The behind-the-camera team was equally impressed with the director and happy to work with him. For future director Anthony Mann, who was Sturges' assistant at the time, it was an education. "I'd stage a scene and he'd tell me how lousy it was," Mann said. "Then I watched the editing, and I was able to gradually build up knowledge. Preston insisted I make a film as soon as possible. He said it's better to have done something bad than to have done nothing."

Cinematographer John Seitz admired Sturges' unconventional approach to his work. The opening scene - Sullivan screens a socially conscious drama for his studio bosses and pleads his case to make "O Brother, Where Art Thou" - comprised ten pages of dialogue to cover about four and a half minutes of screen time. It was scheduled for two complete days of shooting. On the morning of the first day, Seitz found Sturges inspecting the set with a viewfinder, looking for where he could cut the scene and change camera set-ups. Seitz dared him to do it all in one take. Never one to refuse a dare, Sturges took him up on it, although the nervous Seitz had never attempted to complete a two-day work schedule in one day. With the endorsement of McCrea and the rest of the actors, Sturges pressed on, determined to set a record. The first take was fine, but the camera wobbled a little in the tracking shot following the men from screening room to office, so they tried again. They did two or three takes at the most and that was it - two full days work by 11 a.m. on the first day, a feat that had the entire studio buzzing.

On the down side, it wasn't all roses with the leading lady of Sullivan's Travels. Sturges wanted Veronica Lake from the very beginning after admiring her work in I Wanted Wings (1941). Studio brass thought Lake was wrong for the part and suggested a number of other actresses, including Ida Lupino, Lucille Ball, Frances Farmer, and Ruby Keeler. Sturges got Lake - but it was a mixed blessing. She proved her reputation for being difficult. "She wouldn't know her lines," McCrea later said. "This great dialogue and we would go through about fifteen takes while she was learning her lines. Then by the time she got it great, I was just going through the lines, kind of pooped out and tired. She was very unprofessional."

Lake pulled another unprofessional stunt that sent Sturges into a fury. He had heard a rumor before filming started that she might be pregnant. He asked her to be straight with him: "This is going to be a tough film, Ronni. I'd never want to see a pregnant gal do it." Lake denied the rumor and the filming began. Soon all the grueling location work and the physical demands of the role began to wear her out. She was, in fact, six months pregnant at the start of the shoot and she finally confessed when it became impossible to hide. Viewing the film, it's not hard to spot her condition, even hidden beneath the gowns and the floppy bum's outfits which were designed especially for her by Edith Head. The problems that drove the film over schedule and over budget have been largely attributed to Lake by most people involved in the production. But her performance is very good, possibly one of her best, but as McCrea said, "[Sturges] worked like the devil for it."

by Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser Sullivan's Travels (1942)

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!

Before Preston Sturges directed his own films, he established himself as one of Hollywood's most promising screenwriters, with films such as Strictly Dishonorable (1931), based on his own 1929 hit play; The Power and the Glory (1933); and Easy Living (1937). However, Sturges' films are more than just talk; they combine verbal wit with great visual slapstick and display a sharp sense of editing and narrative construction.

In Sullivan's Travels, one virtuoso shot during the initial conversation with the studio executives lasts more than four minutes, but thanks in part to the engrossing, rapid-fire dialogue it doesn't seem forced or drawn out. Sturges is aided greatly by the work of cinematographer John Seitz (1893-1979), one of Hollywood's finest cameramen of the day. While Seitz also photographed the Sturges comedies The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), today he is perhaps better remembered for films with noirish elements such as Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). In Sullivan's Travels, he displays his talent for shooting both types of films, as suggested by the contrast between the bright world of Hollywood and the low-key, chiaroscuro lighting of the chain gang sequences. Seitz's impressive career spanned the mid-1910s through 1960; during that time he also invented many photographic techniques, including the matte shot. At the time of his death he held 18 patents.

The dedication which opens the film ("To the memory of those who made us laugh...") was originally supposed to come at the end of the film, in the form of a voiceover narration by Joel McCrea. The prologue that Sturges originally wrote for the film read: "This is the story of a man who wanted to wash an elephant. The elephant darn near ruined him." While Sturges always had McCrea in mind for the lead from the start, Barbara Stanwyck, who had displayed a remarkable gift for comedy in Sturges' The Lady Eve (1941), was originally supposed to play "The Girl." Frances Farmer was also tested for the role. Veronica Lake was eventually hired, but she was six months pregnant by the time shooting began. Sturges was furious when he learned of it and, according to Lake, "it took physical restraint to keep him from boiling over at me." She was then given a loosely-fitting hobo outfit and Edith Head designed gowns that would flatter her pregnant figure. Today, it is often regarded as Lake's best performance and one of the few instances where she was able to overcome the burden of her glamorous image.

In a direct sense, Sullivan's Travels is Preston Sturges' attempt to negotiate his role as a director of comedies with his interest in social problems. The social commentary behind the film comes through most vividly during the sequences depicting the cruelties the prisoners are subjected to and the chain gang's visit to an African-American church, suggesting a common bond of suffering; such implications were not lost on contemporary audiences. In response to the film Sturges received a letter from Walter White, the secretary of the NAACP, saying: "I want to congratulate and thank you for the church sequence in Sullivan's Travels. This is one of the most moving scenes I have seen in a moving picture for a long time. But I am particularly grateful to you, as are a number of my friends, both white and colored, for the dignified and decent treatment of Negroes in this scene. I was in Hollywood recently and am to return there soon for conferences with production heads, writers, directors, and actors and actresses in an effort to induce broader and more decent picturization of the Negro instead of limiting him to menial or comic roles. The sequence in Sullivan's Travels is a step in that direction and I want you to know how grateful we are." At the same time, the US Office of Censorship, concerned that the film might be used as propaganda by the enemy during World War II, asked Paramount to cut some of the harsher scenes; the studio refused, and as a result the film was not allowed to be exported during the war. Incidentally, the cartoon that the prisoners and the African-American churchgoers watch together is the 1934 Disney short "Playful Pluto."

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).
BW-91m. Closed Captioning.

by James Steffen

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teaser Sullivan's Travels (1942)

AWARDS & HONORS:

In 1990, Sullivan's Travels was chosen to be preserved as a National Film treasure in the Library of Congress National Film Registry

It was also voted Best Film of the year by the National Board of Review and The New York Times.

Preston Sturges was chosen Best Director by the New York Film Critics Circle in 1942.

The Critics' Corner: SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS

Sturges brought the film in for just under $677,000, but it was still over budget and nine days over schedule. Because it juxtaposed wacky comedy with dark drama, it got mixed reviews and did not do well in the long run at the box office, despite a good opening (it set an all-time house record of $75, 650 in its first week at New York's Paramount theater). Also because of the unusual mixture of comedy and drama, the studio had a hard time figuring out how to market the movie. The ad campaign for Sullivan's Travels was dominated by Veronica Lake's peek-a-boo hairdo image with the tag line: "Veronica Lake's on the take." But because of Sturges' success and popularity at the time, a trailer was also designed that featured him as the director quarreling with himself as the writer in split screen while Lake and McCrea looked on. Still, the story and the tone of the film seemed to confuse people. "One local reviewer wanted to know what the hell the tragic passages were doing in this comedy," Sturges said, "and another wanted to know what the hell the comic passages were doing in this drama." Sullivan's Travels managed one month as a Motion Picture Herald "Box Office Champion" then disappeared.

"A perverse piece ...disconcerting but brilliant and disturbing. [Sturges'] films have the rich disorder of a fertile mind." - C.A. Lejeune, London Observer, January 1942

"A confusing mixture of satire, slapstick, drama, melodrama and comedy." - Time magazine, 1942 "Sturges, a Hollywood satirical genius, at his peak had enough box-office clout, like Billy Wilder with Sunset Boulevard [1950], to assail the system that fed him. ...It's a great comedy, with a message that works in context, the flophouses of life's downside contrasting with Hollywood's absurd hedonism. Sturges's wonderful stock company of supporting players makes up the rest of the cast." - George Perry, BBC Online film reviews, 2001.

"Film's dialogue has humor and rhythm. It's like a relay race, with words used as batons. ...Sturges often holds his camera on his actors during long stretches of dialogue, emphasizing the importance of words to each character. He democratically gives all his characters, even his supporting players, important and wise things to say." - Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic (Simon & Schuster, 1986)

"A Swiftian glimpse of Hollywood and its occasional flirtations with social consciousness, generally considered the most profound expression of the director's personality. ...Like Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale, the film pivots in one poetic pirouette from the sunny to the somber when an old derelict is trapped in a metal jungle of switch rails and is unable to avoid an oncoming train." - Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema (Dutton, 1968)

Compiled by Rob Nixon

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