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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!
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