Sullivan's Travels (1941)

Sullivan's Travels (1941), written and directed by Preston Sturges.

Tired of making fluffy -- but profitable -- musical comedies, a ranting director with delusions of artistic merit wants to break out and try something new. Films with social significance about the big issues: labor and capital, poverty and the plight of the common man during the Great Depression.

He's passionate about things of which he has no experience at all, and decides to send down to wardrobe for a hobo costume so he can hit the road in disguise and share the sufferings of the less fortunate. Everyone tries to talk him out of it.

This is a wild ride, with several distinct acts:

Each act has fine episodes: riding with the hot-rod kid and the sex-starved spinster in the comedy act, for example. In the chain-gain segment there is a lovely scene where the prisoners are hosted by a local black church for movie night. The pastor tells his congregation:


And once again, brothers and sisters, we're gonna share our pleasure with some neighbors less fortunate than ourselves. Won't you please clear the first three pews so they may have seats? And when they get here, I'm gonna ask you once more, neither by word nor by action not by look to make our guests feel unwelcome, nor draw away from them or act high-toned. For we is all equal in the sight of God.

This film seems particularly cherished by other movie-makers. You see many visual quotes of it, as in the trick beginning of Stardust Memories (1980) and in O Brother Where Art Thou (2000), which is also the name of the film Sullivan wanted to make.

Joel McCrea and other cast would return for The Palm Beach Story (1942). Veronica Lake has better comic sensibility than I remember seeing before, and also seems to care more about the picture she's in.

Too many quips and in-jokes to catalog. Sullivan's "for tax purposes only" wife is called the "Panther Woman", which must be a reference to Island of Lost Souls (1932).

It's been years since I last saw this, and I remembered nothing except the prison camp. Tragedy leaves more of impression than comedy.

Criterion Blu-ray.