“Sullivan’s Travels is both screwball comedy and socially conscious melodrama — as well as a satire of socially conscious melodrama, and a serious apologetic for crowd-pleasing comedy.”
So says film critic Steven D. Greydanus. The hilarious opening sequence of Sullivan’s Travels is the evidence supporting Greydanus’ claims, when, after watching the first edit of an upcoming action picture, actor Joel McCrea—playing a film director by the name of John L. Sullivan—bemoans the sell-out of corporate Hollywood and the way it is effecting his artistic abilities. Speaking with his studio boss, Sullivan tells of his desire to film a new movie, called Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?.
“I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions,” Sullivan exclaims, “Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!”
“But with a little sex in it,” his boss inserts.
“A little, but I don’t want to stress it.”
At the beginning of the film, Sullivan is a product of that system; his desires to escape the system are naive and a little hollow, like the young urban student who wants to throw his finger at corporate America but just can’t help but indulge himself at the corner Starbucks twice a day. We all have delusions of grandeur, and usually these are manifest in an ideological loftiness that works so much better in theory than in practice. We long for the romance of poverty while we carry Coach purses. We buy a pair of Toms because in doing so we think we can fit in with our friends while simultaneously covering up our malleability because its for a better cause. We hate the corruption of politics and oligarchy, but vote for the name on the ballot that is the most recognizable. We want to be part of something bigger, but not too big, or we’ll look like we are just following the crowd.
So stands Sullivan. He knows that there is a better way, but he’s never lived it before. For him, it’s only an idea. Honor and glory are things he recognizes; they are things he desires. But, he doesn’t know completely what they contain. His resulting attempts to discover himself, and in so doing, create Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?, lead him on an adventure that teaches him all about those depths which he has never reached. His ideological strivings become pragmatic realizations. He learns about the real world, and teaches us an important lesson in the process.
This is the depth of Sullivan’s Travels. A lesser film would have begun with a Sullivan that had no empathy, no humility, and no desire to leave his comfortable world. A lesser film would have somehow forced Sullivan on a path to self-discovery, a path that he would tread with reluctance. His decision to accept this path would come as he fell in love with a girl along the way, who opened his eyes to a life of selflessness and service for others. He would learn his lessons, and return—after an obligatory bump in that road that almost ruins everything—to his old life with a renewed vigor and outlook. But Sullivan’s Travels doesn’t do that. Sure, it has a road, it has a girl, and it has a bump in the road. But it isn’t so careless. It is easy to deal with character change in extremes, but it’s the subtle changes that really matter. It’s easy to make a proud man humble when you’re writing a script. It’s much harder to write a script that shows how a man who wants to be humble actually achieves that goal.
The story of Sullivan’s change is not one of the made-for-TV mold; it’s about reconciling and overcoming hypocrisy. It’s about a change, not so much in behavior, but in approach. Sullivan’s problem is that he can’t stand the sell-out of Hollywood. He doesn’t want to make a comedy, or an action movie. He wants to make a drama, one that represents the true American in this Depression era. But, he doesn’t recognize his own hypocrisy; it is born of his social status, not his fault. He doesn’t realize that what he has been making all along is exactly what he should be making. He just wasn’t doing it in the right way.
Watching him discover this is to watch him forsake his poshlost. Poshlost is a principle (borrowed from the Russian language) that I have discussed quite frequently in this blog. In order (in my opinion) to become a competent movie-goer, one absolutely must understand what this principle is; they don’t need, necessarily to know the word, but they must recognize the ideas behind it. You see, poshlost is the greatest manifestation of social pride, and recognition of it provides the greatest tool in the creation of literary satire. Poshlost is the very phenomenon to which Sullivan—and we, the viewers—are so subject. Poshlost is the inability to recognize the reality, the act of looking to conform without losing individuality, all while being confused about what it means to conform. It is faux-intellectualism, racial guilt, and self-conceit. It is the person who hides a big-screen television behind his never-before-opened leather-bound encyclopedia set. It is the person who won’t admit that Big Macs are delicious for sake of losing a reputation when, we all know, that they are. It is frequently seen in the newly-rich; like Woody Allen and Tracey Ullman who show up to the party in golden suits in Small Time Crooks.
This is a principle that guides us, and a trait that we try to overcome while concurrently embracing completely. And that is what makes it such a great theme to satirize. Sullivan’s Travels uses the poshlost of its titular character as the trait that needs redeeming, and does it with a grace and wit that rang true for the war-era audience (recently removed from the Depression) to whom it was shown. It continues to ring true today.
Two forces move Sullivan towards reconciling his poshlost. First, is fate. Second, is the girl. Fate is played out using a familiar technique, a metaphor oft-utilized. Playing off of the popular trend set by It Happened One Night eight years earlier, Sullivan’s Travels tells of a journey through America. This road—literal and figurative—leads towards an inevitable end, a destiny of the American dream. The path of fate is surely a powerful one in the dramatic echelons of the screwball comedy.
The girl, though…now that’s where things happen. The road—fate—is the all-powerful guide of our characters, sure. But the movie is not about the road. It’s about the people on the road. In the 1930s and ’40s screwball comedy, there was always a road of some sort, and characters could choose to walk it or cross it, but at the end of it all, there was Paulette Goddard and Charlie Chaplin, walking into the sunset, together.
In Sullivan’s Travels, standing in Goddard’s place is the gorgeous Veronica Lake. The modern movie-watcher will know Lake mostly as the actress that Kim Basinger dressed up as in L.A. Confidential; but in 1941, Veronica Lake was the bombshell of Hollywood. Her character in this movie goes without a name, credited simply as “the girl.” Again, we have a striking similarity with a Charlie Chaplin film. This humanizes the beautiful blonde…she is no longer a movie star, but in some way, she is the common American. Sullivan’s interactions with her while trying to connect with “real life” represent his awakening to modern America. So, while we’re watching Sullivan’s intriguing transformation, we find ourselves connecting mostly with the “girl.”
Paramount capitalized on Lake’s performance: you cannot find a copy of Sullivan’s Travels today that does not feature her as the sole figure on the cover. I have never seen a copy or poster for the movie that has Joel McCrea; Sullivan himself is not featured. She was the beautiful face that was supposed to draw in the viewers. Long before “The Rachel” could be seen all over America in 1995, Veronica Lake’s “peek-a-boo” was the pop-culture hairstyle. While it was not copied to the same degree as Jennifer Aniston’s hair was in the mid-’90s, it was the most recognizable hairstyle in America, made famous on accident because of the way that Lake’s long blonde waves “covered” up her left eye in her breakout film, I Wanted Wings (which came out the earlier the same year). In the Sullivan’s Travels, Lake didn’t wear the same haircut; as a matter of fact, her hair was often pulled back under a cap. Despite that, drawings of her with that hair graced the promotional distributions for the film.
Now, why I am talking so much about this? Because it all comes back to the main theme of this movie: it is a satire of poshlost. This movie is all about how movies cop out. This movie is all about a man who is tired of his own copping out and wants to be something more. This is a movie about class distinctions and a shattered America, yet it is supposed to be a light-hearted comedy. Like Greydanus said, it’s a movie that tries, simultaneously, to be a screwball comedy and a socially-conscious drama, while seeming to satirize social melodrama and taking comedy all too seriously. As a matter of fact, it is a lot like Citizen Kane in the way that it rejects its own precepts and contradicts itself with an amazing passion. Here we have a movie about America in the Depression, and the coming-of-age of Hollywood itself, and yet the production studio is capitalizing on the sex appeal of its lead actress without shame.
While I don’t think the production studio did this on purpose, I actually do think that this is an instance where the decisions of the profit-driven actually lend some more light to the quality of the film itself. Here we have a film with a very profitable image that comments quite seriously on the facade of that image. But, the movie is absolutely in no way hypocritical. How is that possible? It’s all because of Preston Sturges’ immaculate ability with screenplay.
Sturges is one of the truly great filmmakers of the ’30s and ’40s-era comedy. Among his most significant directorial efforts are such films as The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story, but as a writer, he not only penned these films, but also such great movies as The Good Fairy and Easy Living. He was the first ever winner of the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for The Great McGinty in 1941. He had one of the finest grasps on satire in the industry, and he really made it shine in Sullivan’s Travels—the movie many consider to be his finest (alongside The Lady Eve).
Perhaps his greatest talent was to dabble in the very form of hypocrisy and self-contradiction that has been addressed in this essay. I am attempting, here, to prove that his contradictions were his finest literary devices. However, some didn’t recognize this. One of the more vocal critics of The Palm Beach Story even said this about him: “He is essentially a satirist without any stable point of view from which to aim his satire. He is apt to turn his back on what he has been sniping at to demolish what he has just been defending. He is contemptuous of everybody except the opportunist and the unscrupulous little woman who, at some point in every picture, labels the hero a poor sap. That the invariable fairy godfather of each picture is not only expressive of his own cold-blooded cynicism but of typical Hollywood fantasy is an example of how this works. Another phase of his attack is shrouding in slapstick the fact that the godfather pays off not for perseverance or honesty or ability but merely from capriciousness.”
Yet, Sturges makes it work because of how self-aware his screenplay is. The movie makes no attempt to be more than one it is: a comedy. This movie is all about comedy, and how it unites us. By movie’s end, you will undeniably understand that the way out of poshlost and pride and hypocrisy is a good laugh. That is what this movie is; it is Preston Sturges’ commentary of the role of comedy in society. America, even then, had a slight reputation at making movies that were too marketable: production companies pumped out pictures that strangled the possible success of “independent pictures” and contributed to the American population’s further alienation from the cinema of other countries, particularly France. But, there was a genre that Americans could discover, love, and cherish, one that played to the markets as well to the soul. In this time, America was in the middle of a Depression, and about to be hurdled into war. Despite all the critics who would say that movies lacked “art”, Sturges was saying that the most important art is the art of making people laugh when everything around them was going wrong.
Sullivan’s Travels was first released to critics on December 4, 1941. Three days later, the world would hear on the radio waves announcements that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. About a month later, the film was released to a nation at war. The message it sent them was strong: the people of the nation were all in it together. Film could have a great ability to bring people together, and it didn’t have to be propaganda. All it had to be was comedy. While there will always be a place for the socially-conscious art film or dramatic epic in the world of cinema, we will always need a good comedy. Sullivan realizes this exact thing in his travels.