The Zany Poignancy of "Sullivan’s Travels"

Sullivan's Travels This is a continuation of a series in which I count down my Top 5 Favorite Comedy Films.

No. 4: Sullivan’s Travels

This is likely a deep cut for many. Despite ranking No. 39 on the AFI "100 Years…100 Laughs" list and No. 61 on their overall top 100 movies, I have found that not many people are even aware of the 1942 movie starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. If you are familiar with it, great. If not, here is your short primer.

Set against the Great Depression, John Sullivan (McCrea) is a famed Hollywood director most known for making lowest common denominator type comedies. Think Brett Ratner. Predictable, safe, and mainstream almost to a fault. But, like so many artists he yearns for something more. Specifically, he has a dour and depressing project in mind that is set in the terrible Depression ravaging the country. This project is called O Brother, Where Art Thou? Sound familiar? Yes, the Coen Brothers' movie takes its name from this reference.

But, in John Sullivan’s world, instead of a Depression-era-set satire loosely based on Homer’s The Odyssey, the movie he imagines is a bleak cinema verité meant to shake the ranks of the rich and powerful by depicting the plight of the millions of unemployed Americans of the time.

Predictably, Sullivan’s bosses think this is a terrible idea, especially considering that Sullivan is not only a big, famous, and rich director, but he comes from money, and therefore, could never dream of connecting to the average person. This sparks an idea. Sullivan declares that we will become one of them by dressing like he’s poor and then living among the poor for awhile. If he can do that, he argues, he can convince people to let him make the movie.

Hey, do you know what happens every time a celebrity does something “charitable” or “selfless”? Yeah, there are a thousand cameras in their faces documenting every touching moment. And, the 1930s were apparently no different as he is essentially tailed by an entourage of people trying to document his social experiment…which naturally makes it not work.

And, that’s where it gets really fun. He struggles mightily to break away from who he is but keeps finding himself back at square one. It’s a really great portrayal of just how intractable the lines between class can be, in both directions. And along this journey he hooks up with a young woman trying to be an actress (Lake) - she’s only credited as The Girl - who is intrigued by his stunt and joins him.

With a premise like this, it’d be super easy to come off as disingenuous. After all, this movie was being made by actual rich Hollywood types, directed by actual rich and famous Hollywood director Preston Sturges, and starring actual big Hollywood stars in McCrea and Lake. What right do they have to even pretend like they could do this in a fictional world?

But, they pull it off perfectly. And, I’ll tell you how without spoiling a really great ending. First, the Hollywood types are played largely as fools. Early on, this otherwise straightforward comedy adopts a bit of zany physicality specifically in an effort to make the Hollywood types look silly. And, it works. For example, Sullivan’s first attempt to escape his entourage involves him hopping a ride with some little kid driving a DIY roadster type car. It’s very fast, and when the bus following Sullivan (he’d been walking) tries to keep up, several shots from inside the bus show the cast falling all over each other in the most large, comical way possible. Food flies, people flip over furniture, people fall into each other in the most inappropriate of ways. It’s a laugh out loud moment in a movie that up to that point seemed to have been setting up a fairly serious premise. And, there are a lot of great moments like that, all in the service of putting the rich and powerful types in their place.

Did you ever see that episode of 30 Rock where Tracy was going to a woman's shelter to show his extremely depressing Oscar drama and at the last minute decides that these people would much rather watch one of his silly Eddie Murphy-esque comedies? Yeah, they got that from this movie.

Sullivan’s Travels is a movie that makes a solid argument for why comedies are important. That’s why I love it. That, and it’s just really fun to watch. I’m not sure if I can do it any more justice without writing an academic length article. So, that’s the point I’ll end on. I’ve written some about, and will write more about, just why comedy is important as not only an art form but as an integral part of our lives. And, Sullivan’s Travels is the perfect example of that in film form. It’s everything it tells us comedy should be by the third act. And yet, it’s handled so deftly that you don’t realize they’re doing it until they’ve done it. Super smart, super fun, meta-commentary, a defense of comedy. It really is pretty perfect.

In fact, I’ve almost talked myself into ranking it higher. But, we’ll stay with the current list for now.

And, if you’re not convinced yet, watch the current previews for the Coen brothers movie Hail, Caesar! Without a writer/director like Preston Sturges, and without his movie Sullivan’s Travels, most Coen Brothers comedies probably don’t exist. They get their formula from this. That’s why they used the title of Sullivan’s movie for one of theirs…and made it a comedy. 

No. 3 is just a few days away…or should I say, "the sheriff is a n—."

Kris Noteboom is a Level 3 student at DCH. He is working on his PhD, with a focus comedy. He went on a mini tour this summer performing his comedic one-man show, And Then I Woke Up.