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The film opens with the following dedication: "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." Scripts in the Preston Sturges Collection at the UCLA Special Collections Library reveal that the above dedication, with the inclusion of the underlined phrase, "whose efforts lightened our burden a little in this cock-eyed caravan...", was initially the epilogue to the film, to be spoken by "Sully" as if it were the prologue of the comedy he plans to make. Sturges originally intended for the film to open with the following prologue: "This is the story of a man who wanted to wash an elephant. The elephant darn near ruined him." Sturges initially had been hoping to use a clip from a Charles Chaplin film for the scene in the church; however, modern sources note that Chaplin declined to give permission for the use of his films. In one scene in Sullivan's Travels, actor Joel McCrea parodies Chaplin's signature "Little Tramp" character. The Walt Disney Productions cartoon that is shown is the 1934 short "Playful Pluto."
The film cost $689,665.16 to produce and went $86,665.16 over budget. In a personnel sheet in the Sturges Collection, writer Ernst Laemmle is listed as "assistant writer." Information in the Paramount Collection at the AMPAS Library indicates that Laemmle was paid to complete the script, although Laemmle is mentioned as a co-writer with Sturges in many pre-release news items. The full extent of his contribution to the screenplay has not been determined. According to Film Daily, Barbara Stanwyck was originally considered to co-star with Joel McCrea. Letters from the PCA indicate that, among other things, the Hays Office suggested that the word "bum" would be considered unacceptable by the British censors and that the filmmakers must be careful not to show "any suggestion of sexual intimacy" between "Sully" and "The Girl" in the scenes in which they are sleeping together at the mission.
According to information in NARS in Washington, D.C., the U.S. government's World War II Office of Censorship in New York formally disapproved exporting this film during wartime because of the "long sequence showing life in a prison chain gang which is most objectionable because of the brutality and inhumanity with which the prisoners are treated." This disapproval conformed with the department's policy of not exporting any film that could be turned into enemy propaganda. The department suggested deletions which would have made the picture acceptable under their guidelines; however, the producers declined this opportunity.
The following information is from the Paramount Collection at the AMPAS Library: Paramount purchased Sturges's original story for $10,000; Frances Farmer was tested for the role of "The Girl." Further information reveals that Paramount contracted with the Schlesinger Corp. to produce an animated main title sequence, but for reasons not stated in the file, Paramount re-shot the main title. It has not been determined if Schlesinger Corp. ever actually created an animated main title sequence. The "Poverty Montage" took seven hours to film, four hours longer than anticipated. An early cast list has Richard West as "Young man with earphones," but his participation in the final film has not been confirmed. Some scenes were shot on location in Canoga Park, San Marino, Castaic, Los Angeles and at Lockheed Airport, CA.
Actress Veronica Lake was six months pregnant when shooting began on this film, and, according to her autobiography, refrained from telling director Sturges until after filming began. Sturges consulted with Lake's physician regarding the strenuous nature of the part. According to modern sources, former Rose Bowl queen Cheryl Walker performed as Lake's double and associate producer Paul Jones appeared as the late husband of "Miz Zeffie" in a photograph in which the man's expression changes. Modern sources also report that Sturges wrote the film with Joel McCrea in mind for the lead. In the scene in which The Girl sees Sully's photograph in the newspaper and realizes he is alive, Sturges appears as the director on the film set and Ray Milland plays the man with whom The Girl almost collides on the studio street.
A letter from Walter White, Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to Sturges, is included in the Sturges Collection and reads as follows: "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."
In his autobiography, Preston Sturges noted that he wrote Sullivan's Travels as a reaction to the "preaching" he found in other comedy films "which seemed to have abandoned the fun in favor of the message." New York Times called the film "the most brilliant picture yet this year" and noted that while most of Hollywood seemed to be calling for purely escapist fare because of World War II, Sturges managed to combine escapist fun with an underlying significance. However, Sullivan's Travels did not escape harsher criticism. Hollywood Reporter noted that the film lacked the "down to earth quality and sincerity which made [Sturges's] other three pictures a joy to behold" and that "Sturges...fails to heed the message that writer Sturges proves in his script. Laughter is the thing people want-not social studies." The NYkr simply stated that "anyone can make a mistake, Preston Sturges, even. The mistake in question is a pretentious number called Sullivan's Travels."
This film was selected for the National Film Registry by the National Film Preservation Board. Veronica Lake reprised her role in a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast on November 9, 1942, co-starring Ralph Bellamy. In the 1993 film Amos and Andrew, "Andrew's" Pulitzer Prize winning play was called Yo, Brother, Where Art Thou.