Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Joel McCrea,
Director: Preston Sturges
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 90 Minutes
Release Date: April 14, 2015
I'm going to find out how it feels to be in trouble. Without friends. Without credit. Without checkbook. Without name. Alone.
I'll go with you.
How can I be alone if you go with me?!
Sullivan's Travels has become something of a popular movie trivia answer in the last year, with the question being, Where did the title for the Cohen Brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou? come from? In 1942, long before that particular movie made the big screen as a strange take on The Odyssey, maverick writer/director Preston Sturges made that question the heart of a masterful mix of slapstick and pathos in one of the best pictures about moviemaking ever created.
John L. Sullivan (McCrea) is a successful Hollywood director, but he considers his string of popular comedies nothing but fluff. Motivated by a desire for artistic integrity (and his own pretension), he decides he wants to make a serious picture about the condition of man in the era of the Depression. O Brother, Where Art Thou? will establish him as a serious filmmaker.
When his studio bosses correctly point out that he knows nothing of poverty, hunger and hardship, Sullivan's idea is to abandon his wealth and privilege, and take to the streets with shoddy clothes and a dime in his pocket to experience America from the point of view of the forgotten man.
The early parts of the film are the funniest, as Sullivan discovers leaving his life behind is not as easy as he thought. At first, the studio sends a caravan of Hollywood reporters on his tail to turn his experience into a great publicity story! Later, he catches a ride with a truck driver, only to end up back in Hollywood where he started! It's there he meets the girl, Veronica Lake, who first takes pity on him as a hobo, but later decides to join him on his journey of poverty and discovery, much to Sullivan's reluctance.
The film changes moods rather unexpectedly right at the point we think Sullivan is giving up and has learned all he needs to know to make his picture, he is mugged by a tramp, who later dies in a train accident wearing Sullivan's clothes. While Hollywood and the rest of the world mourns the loss of their friend and director, the real Sullivan ends up in a hard labor prison when, in a moment of amnesia, he accosts a railroad worker. Now, Sullivan really IS at the end of his rope lost and forgotten, and no one even looking for him.
It's been said that Sturges was both the first screenwriter to push himself into a successful directing career, and also the first filmmaker to really introduce irony to the motion picture. There may be no better example of the latter than Sullivan's Travels. The irony of his protagonist's story is clear, and the moral is a strong one: you can't experience poverty and hardship by merely playing at it until you've had enough.
As smoothly as he changed gears into drama, Sturges pulls us back out in time for the finale, with an over-the-top slapstick style that proves the main lesson Sullivan learns after he comes back to Hollywood and decides not to make his dream project after all. There's a lot to be said for making people laugh, he tells his friends. Did you know that's all some people have? In one bold sweep, Sturges has taken us from laughter to tears to laughter again, and at the same time, gave honor, dignity and validity to the humble comedy.
I don't think for one moment that Sturges is dismissing films that try to shed light on the human condition. After all, Sullivan's Travels manages to do just that in the margins. But maybe Sullivan's haughty butler has a point when he tells his boss, The poor won't appreciate (the film), sir. They'll rather resent the invasion of their privacy. In other words, Sturges questions not the art, but the motivation behind it. Will the downtrodden really enjoy a film that depicts how unhappy their existence is?
Films of that nature may be useful to enlighten the misinformed or the ignorant, but thankfully, Sturges' movie served a higher purpose. There is, indeed, a lot to be said for making people laugh.
Criterion strikes black and white gold once again with a glorious high definition transfer for Sullivan's Travels. This digital remastered print is impeccably clean, sharp, and crisp, with a wide range of grayscale from pure whites to deep blacks. Save for one or two extremely dark scenes that show a bit of negative wear in the form of a slight shimmer, this movie doesn't look its 60 years at all, and easily ranks as one of the best offerings I've seen for a film from the 1940s. Fans and collectors are going to be very pleased.
The uncompressed mono soundtrack is surprisingly good not only is it clean and clear, and free from noise, hiss or distortions, it's delightfully dynamic as well. Listen in on the car chase near the beginning, or later when Sullivan's sneezes keep breaking the silence, and you'll be amazed at the amount of punch the audio carries. Overall, classic soundtracks don't come much better than this.
The main highlight is an enjoyable commentary track featuring Michael McKean and Christopher Guest, both fans of the film with plenty of insight into its significance and impact, as well as Noah Baumbach and Kenneth Bowser, both of whom have documented Hollywood's glory years, and both very knowledgeable about the career of Preston Sturges. There is also a very good PBS documentary on Sturges from the network's American Masters series(made by Kenneth Bowser), featuring plenty of film clips and interviews, a vintage Hedda Hopper interview with the director and a more recent one with his widow Sandy, audio recordings of Sturges singing one of his original compositions and reciting a poem, storyboards, blueprints, production stills, a publicity scrapbook, and, of course, the original trailer.
Sullivan may not have walked away from his travels with the experience he wanted to make his social commentary, but both he and we, the audience, leave Sullivan's Travels behind with a great deal of laughter and a better appreciation for the things that make us laugh. This is a classic film given royal treatment on Blu-ray by Criterion, and is one no serious movie lover should pass up.