Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
If Sullivan's Travels needs explaining, read no more and seek out a copy by whatever means
possible. This picture works whether you're alone or in a theater with 1,000 laughing people.
Savant's mission in this review is just to assure the reader that Criterion's DVD is a winner, and does
the movie justice.
Tired of making popular but artless comedies, successful Hollywood
director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) leaves his mansion to pretend he's a hobo and find some real
trouble, so as to have the appropriate life experience to make a deep-dish film version of his
favorite socially-conscious book, 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' While on the road The director makes several
attempts to shake his Hollywood entourage, and has a chance meeting with a washout ingenue on her
way back to the stix (Veronica Lake). She becomes his companion on a trip through the hobo world.
All goes well until a twist of fate gives the innocent Sullivan a long sentence on a chain gang,
where his plea that he's really a bigshot director falls on deaf ears. Back in tinseltown, the hundred-odd (and I
mean odd) people who depend on him, think he's dead!
Preston Sturges at his best is nothing short of amazing. The sparkling dialogue that rolls off people's
tongues in this film is some of the most refreshing to be found in movies. Joel McCrea is as brilliant here
as he is in The Palm Beach Story (perhaps the plain funniest of the Sturges bunch), yet he's only
the topliner in a ensemble that can boast twenty delightful, memorable parts. Billed only as 'the girl',
Veronica Lake gets mileage out of corny laughs like sneeze-talking with a snootful, and discovering herself
infested with fleas. The secondary parts are nigh-perfect. Sullivan's
chaffeur (Frank Moran) corrects William Demarest's grammar in a wonderfully gravelly voice. Sullivan's
producers tell tall tales about their tough childhoods in an attempt to bring Sullivan back to reality.
A charmless widow (Esther Howard) tries to turn hobo Sullivan into a lover. Chain gang trusty
Jimmy Conlin tells the timeless tale of the convict who dreamed he flew away every night when he went
to sleep. Portly butler Robert Greig stops the show with his sober, reasoned protest against Sullivan's
insensitive plans to exploit the poor ... he says it in such a way to suggest an unspoken personal depth
to his character.
Critic James Agee, who could be tough on the best of directors, loved Sturges but deplored his
reliance on low slapstick comedy. When I show this film to people the biggest laughs are often from
the corniest physical gags, such as the cook (Charles Moore) crashing around in the careering bus or the
gas gauge on the 13 year-old kid's homemade crash car. Sturges has a thorough understanding of comedy in
film from silent shenanigans to fast-talking screwball dialogue. His dream project Mad Wednesday
(which, thanks to Howard Hughes, helped end his career) was born out a desire to work with Harold Lloyd.
Sturges satirical and irony has not a hint of cynicism. All his work has heart, but Sullivan's Travels
isperhaps is the most sentimental. What other film ends with the
big smiling face of your hero saying, "Gee Whiz", and is yet not the slightest bit dated?
Sullivan's Travels is more sophisticated than it lets on. Sturges starts by making a strong distinction
between highbrow socially-conscience 'cinema' and common entertainment 'for the masses,' things with titles
like Hey Hey in the Hayloft. Then he goes and rolls both into one. True, his big message is simply that
mindless comedies have value because people need a good laugh - what with 'grim death gargling in their faces' -
but by the end of the show, we're with him all the way.
Criterion's DVD of Sullivan's Travels is the perfect way to see this movie. The picture is excellent
and the sound is as sharp as a tack. 1
The chiaroscuro night visuals are as well rendered as the daylit
exteriors. The disc has an audio commentary, an interview with Sturges' widow, a vintage interview with Sturges
himself, audio recordings of Sturges singing and reciting poetry, storyboards, blueprints, stills and
ad/pub art, and the trailer. But the kicker is the PBS American Masters tv docu The Rise and Fall of
Preston Sturges, a superior 76-minute show that explains Sturges' high throne in American movies.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sullivan's Travels rates:
Supplements: Plenty, see last paragraph above
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: August 18, 2001
1. The clear photography makes it easy to see the famous
'hanging feet' in one of the hobo montages. Savant already has a bitty article on the
Hanging Feet Mystery in Sullivan's Travels
that you might want to check out. After seeing the picture again, Savant thinks that the feet may
have been meant to belong to one of the studio photographers who is seen once or twice snapping photos
of Sullivan's wanderings among the down 'n out.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson