This is the last week of my blog spotlight on screwball comedies. For my final piece, I’ve chosen a film that’s not only funny, but has moments where it’s downright profound. That would be Sullivan’s Travels from 1941. It was written and directed by Preston Sturges, arguably the king of screwball comedy films. And the cast isn’t too shabby either. The leads are played by Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake.
The plot involves director Joel Sullivan (Joel McCrea). He’s tired of making the same fluffy, commercial movies. He wants to branch out and make a social message picture. Sullivan wants to make a film about what it’s like to be poor. The studio executives tell him that since he grew up privileged, he’s not qualified to make such a picture. Sullivan agrees. Then he comes up with the brilliant idea of masquerading as a hobo and starting off with ten cents in his pocket, then goes out into the real world to see what such a life is like. The studio agrees to let him to it, only if they can follow him and document the experience. The director has a few false starts where he can’t shake his privileged past. He gets the studio to agree to let him go it alone for a few weeks and then meet up with him to see how it’s going. Eventually he meets a struggling actress (Veronica Lake) who goes on the journey with him. Their adventures and misadventures make for an entertaining third act.
Sullivan’s Travels has some sight gags. But the screwball comedy aspect largely comes from the writing. That should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with writer/director Sturges, a man known for his rapid-fire dialogue. Exhibit A is the opening conversation between Sullivan and the studio executives where he pitches his idea.
John L. Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: A little, but I don’t want to stress it. 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!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: With a little sex in it.
Hadrian: How ’bout a nice musical?–IMDB
LeBrand: It died in Pittsburgh.
Hadrian: Like a dog!
John L. Sullivan: Aw, what do they know in Pittsburgh…
Hadrian: They know what they like.
John L. Sullivan: If they knew what they liked, they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh!–IMDB
I have nothing against the city of Pittsburgh. But that’s a great piece of comedy writing.
I could write extensively about Sturges’ brilliant writing, but I’d be here for days. So I want to touch on some of the sight gags.
Early in the film, Sullivan is trying to lose the studio executives that are tailing him. He hitchhikes in a car with an old lady who drives like a bat out of hell. The studio executives are following him in what they call a land yacht. Imagine a camper that’s the size of a zeppelin and has four star accommodations and you get a good visual idea of it. Trying to keep up with Sullivan, the land yacht pursues at breakneck speed, causing people and objects in the vehicle to fly around in a classic screwball comedy scene. It’s a great take on the old timey car chase.
Another great sight gag is when Lake and McCrea have a verbal fight. After having a few choice words, Lake pushes McCrea into a pool. Eventually she ends up pulled in too. The sight of them as drowned rats is one to behold.
I want to mention also a scene that’s funny and touching. Towards the end of the movie, there’s a mix-up that results in Sullivan being arrested and ending up in prison. One night, the prisoners are treated to a night of cartoons in a nearby church. This scene was groundbreaking at the time, because the members of the church were some of the first non-stereotypical portrayals of African-Americans in a movie. What Sullivan and the prisoners end up watching is a Pluto cartoon. Sitting watching the cartoon with the prisoners and witnessing the healing powers of laughter, Sullivan has a startling revelation. In troubled times, comedy allows people to forget their troubles. The comedy films he’s making were more important than he realized. *Spoiler alert!* At the end of the film when things are cleared up and released from prison, he delivers a line that’s one of the great film epiphanies.
John L. Sullivan: There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.–IMDB
In the end laughter really is the best medicine.
Sullivan’s Travels is a real hidden gem. McCrea and Lake have terrific onscreen chemistry. The script is smart and funny. It manages to be both a road picture and a buddy comedy. And on top of everything else, between the laughter we learn a lot about how the other half lives. It’s pretty impressive that one film could pull all that off. But Preston Sturges was a master storyteller. Sullivan’s Travels is one of his best films.
That’s it for screwball comedy month. Hope you found some new films to give you a belly laugh or two.