Sullivan’s Travels: Self-Portrait in a Fun-House Mirror

On Film / Essays — Apr 14, 2015
Sullivan's Travels

Of the eight films that Preston Sturges wrote and directed at Paramount from 1939 through 1944, in a run of creative profligacy never since equaled in the United States, only the fourth, Sullivan's Travels (1941), tells the story of a man who can be identified with Sturges by trade. The rest of the Paramount protagonists are grifters and politicians, office clerks, inventors, Army dropouts, and a rich ophiologist. Only John L. Sullivan, who wanders like a modern Gulliver through strange and satirical locales, is a successful director of movie properties, and a valuable property himself to the studio that employs him.

How valuable? We learn almost to the dollar in the opening scene (or the reopening—we'll get to that), in which the studio heads try to argue Sullivan out of spending a million dollars of their money on the film version of a gloomy social-protest novel. Mr. LeBrand (named after producer William LeBaron) and Mr. Hadrian (named after someone even grander) have a hard time winning their case on its merits. They cannot deny that a film similar to the one Sullivan wants to make has just been held over for a fifth week at Radio City Music Hall, nor can they brush off the mention of a notably successful director of social-­message pictures: "What's the matter with Capra?" Sullivan asks gruffly, to which there is no rejoinder. LeBrand and Hadrian (Robert Warwick and Porter Hall) also can't bring themselves to acknowledge a recent best-selling novel and its screen adaptation, perhaps because they feel that the title of Sullivan's pet project, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, can't compete for oomph with The Grapes of Wrath. Still, the studio men surely know about the Steinbeck-Ford film (as does the audience watching Sullivan's Travels) and so cannot pretend that such movies are inevitably poison. Their main concern is that this material would be poison for Sullivan. He wouldn't know what to do with it. And so, in one of those exchanges of dialogue that Sturges directs like a three-sided ping-pong match, they remind their prized director of his great good fortune, rapidly bouncing at him the escalating sums he's made at the studio: two thousand a week, three thousand, four thousand. (As context: Sturges's weekly pay at Paramount, not counting bonuses, was $3,250, reportedly one of the highest salaries in America.)

Here are some of the other figures tossed about in Sullivan's Travels. Cost of a cup of coffee and a doughnut: ten cents. Ham and eggs: thirty-five cents. Marriage of convenience to an unloved woman: twelve thousand dollars a year (or half of Sullivan's income-tax savings). Expression of joyful wonder on the face of a homeless person: five dollars in alms. The life of Sullivan as he walks at night through a shantytown: whatever he's got in his pocket. A price is attached to almost everything and everybody in Sullivan's Travels—though the cost of an action, as we see, may vary with the wealth and status of the person who carries it out. Early in the film, Sullivan gets off without penalty from a traffic violation that would have brought significant punishment to a lesser man. (He not only walks free but feels entitled to insult the policemen.) Toward the end, after misfortune has landed him on a chain gang, he insists that it's irregular (though not necessarily unjust) for him to be locked up: "They don't sentence picture directors to a place like this."

No, they don't. Although social mobility is not impossible in Sullivan's Travels—Sullivan's butler (Robert Greig) appears to have made a personal study of poverty, "quite unwillingly," before permanently donning his ample flesh and formal attire—there is a sense of finality to the class arrangements in the film. Thousands of people may be on the move (you see some of them in a remarkable shot of hobos pouring down an embankment to jump a freight train), but they really have nowhere to go. That's part of the irony of the opening of the film—which announces "The End" before you've even gotten started—and also of Sullivan's repeated failure to learn about trouble by going on the road as a hobo. "It's a funny thing, how everything keeps shoving me back to Hollywood, or Beverly Hills," he muses, perhaps a little feverishly but with a keen sense of the narrative structure that Sturges has trapped him in. "Almost like gravity, as if some force were saying, 'Get back where you belong . . . As you are, so shall you remain.'"

It seems to me, in fact, that Sullivan's Travels is very much about learning to accept one's place in the world. This is where Sturges departed from the makers of the message movies of his day. Those writers and directors showed people struggling within a society that could change—and indeed had to change—whereas Sturges had no such expectations. He was conservative in his politics and cynical by temperament. (Recall how the Boss, in 1940's The Great McGinty, explains that he runs all of the political parties in town, including the reform one. "You think I'm goin' to starve every time they change administrations?") Most of all, though, Sturges felt comfortable in a dramatic tradition of portraying people as types, each with a fixed social status, which had scarcely varied in the years since the Roman theater or the commedia dell'arte and Shakespeare.

The game was to give characters as much vitality as possible within those types. That's what Sturges famously did with his stock company of Paramount bit players, such as Frank Moran (the rough guy who's smarter than he sounds), Jimmy Conlin (the friendly, nervous little fellow), Torben Meyer (the functionary with a foreign accent and brusquely officious ways), and of course William Demarest (the eternal hothead, voluble, cynical, but good-hearted). The same holds true for the leads in Sullivan's Travels, to greater success with Joel McCrea (who in Sturges's films always fits the mold of the enterprising monomaniac, stolid, self-serious, and not quite as bright as he ought to be) and lesser with Veronica Lake (whose namelessness as the Girl betrays how little vitality Sturges bothered to invest in this version of the spunky, seductive dame). Sturges's continual joy in setting these types in motion suggests that he did not deride message movies in Sullivan's Travels out of principled objections—none at least that would hold up better than those of LeBrand and Hadrian—but because he knew what he could do well as a writer and director, and it wasn't The Grapes of Wrath.

As he wrote in his memoirs: "After I saw a couple of pictures put out by some of my fellow comedy-directors, which seemed to have abandoned the fun in favor of the message, I wrote Sullivan's Travels to satisfy an urge to tell them that they were getting a little too deep-dish; to leave the preaching to the preachers."

In other words: learn your place.

But if Sullivan's Travels could be reduced to that moral—or to the justification of comedy as an honorable profession—then it, too, would be a message movie of sorts. And it would be a little too self-contradictory, even for Sturges, to claim to be a happy servant of the mass audience while devising a film expressly to address a handful of Hollywood directors. Of course, Sullivan's Travels goes beyond any such program. Otherwise, it would not continue to delight and fascinate viewers. At the same time, though, it does articulate that program, loud and clear—which is why it's necessary to look more closely at the relationship between Sturges and his putative on-screen stand-in, Sullivan.

By the time Sullivan caps the happy ending by disavowing symbolism, social commentary, and any ambition other than pure entertainment, you have emphatically been set up to hear his words as the credo of Sturges himself. But to believe this would be to fall for a case of mistaken identity similar to the one that advances the plot of Sullivan's Travels on credible but misleading evidence. Sullivan is not Sturges—despite the latter's efforts to plant his business card on the body—nor can Sullivan's Travels be viewed, with open eyes, as an apologia for simple fun in the tradition of Sullivan's Hey-Hey in the Hayloft.

"Make 'em laugh" is hardly an adequate summation for a story in which the most memorable and affecting sequence is a prayer meeting in a rural black church, led by an uncredited Jess Lee Brooks. Talk about leaving the preaching to the preachers. The lesson of Sturges's peculiar gospel may ultimately be the communion of all humanity in the need for laughter, but by the time you reach this revelation, you have witnessed one of the most striking and conscience-laden episodes of social realism in classic American cinema. Other films of the 1930s and early '40s are certainly more outspoken and sustained in their criticisms of the established order—I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang comes to mind as an obvious model—but only Sullivan's Travels shows you the face of poverty, protests against legalized brutality, and puts to shame America's racial division all at once, in full seriousness. And it does so as the high point of its story. That the film is determined to sell this story as comedy does not diminish the seriousness but rather makes it all the more wonderful.

Indeed, the parts of the film that Sturges sells most strenuously as comedy are the ones that are least satisfying. The slapstick chase, with the studio's land yacht racing after a farm boy's hot rod, uses up its chuckles within the first half of the scene, then culminates with the distasteful joke of putting a black cook (Charles R. Moore) into the whiteface of pancake batter. In the scenes at Sullivan's mansion, the repetitive tumbles into the swimming pool are laborious, and perhaps were understood to be so by Sturges (the screenplay candidly describes one of them as "inevitable"). Sturges certainly had made much funnier slapstick sequences—but not in a film in which he was pressing to prove their social utility.

One of the most striking aspects of Sullivan's Travels, in fact, is the shortfall of the vulgar clowning that the film sets out to defend, contrasted with the continuing astonishment of Sturges's comic banter, the ongoing vibrancy of his crowd scenes (the stock company remains hilarious when pushed into close quarters, so long as they're talking instead of being battered), and the ever-increasing fluency of his camera direction (as in the long but lighter-than-air opening sequence that follows Sullivan, LeBrand, and Hadrian out of a screening room and into an office in a single shot, with them arguing all the while). Sullivan's Travels gives you all this, plus the utterly unexpected journeys into shantytowns (in a prolonged and entirely dialogue-free sequence), prison camps, and the black church.

If Sullivan's Travels mounts an argument for anything, it's complexity and ambition in filmmaking, as practiced by an artist who is, unlike Sullivan, rather smarter than he lets on. Sturges might have conceived the film as a journey that would lead you to the belief that he was a simple workman, unconcerned with developing his art—but I say you can't get there from here.