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John L. Sullivan is back! Every new release of this gem deserves a special notice, if only because the new people being born every year need to know about this picture. We discovered this show through the UCLA Film Archive in the early 1970s, which at the time had just won the curatorship of the vintage studio print inventories for both 20th-Fox and Paramount. We saw fantastic nitrate prints of an incredible variety of films, from von Sternberg's Shanghai Express to Erle C. Kenton's Island of Lost Souls. The collections contained perfect original I.B. Tech copies of The Gang's All Here, Forever Amber and Doctor Cyclops. We even saw the experimental Technicolor final reel of House of Rothschild, with Boris Karloff.
One Spring quarter, associate professor Robert Epstein showed all of the films of Preston Sturges, the Paramount prodigy who became the first major screenwriter to break the barrier and direct his own scripts. Although John Huston and Billy Wilder soon followed, Sturges' writing-directing career was completely unique, a flash of brilliance that lasted only a few years.
Sullivan's Travels is Preston Sturges' most talked-about show because it plays with the idea of pretentious, message-laden entertainment. It first deflates such notions but then makes its own blanket statement lauding the joy of fun moviemaking for its own sake. It's a self-conscious satire of Hollywood and certainly an autobiographical work. This comedy about a perplexed movie director unsure about his next film was made a full twenty years before Federico Fellini indulged his personal neuroses in Otto e mezzo.
The one thing common to all of Sturges' Paramount films is flat-out hilarity. Unless one is physically incapable of recognizing real human beings in a B&W picture, there's no need to read about a Sturges picture beforehand: just find a way to see one. They work whether one is alone or in a theater with 1,000 laughing people. But the big audience is preferable.
Weary of making popular but frivolous comedies, successful Hollywood director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) leaves his mansion disguised as a hobo in search of real misery, so as to gain the appropriate life experience to make a deep-dish film version of his favorite socially-conscious book, 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Sullivan's 'on the road' efforts are frustrated by the Hollywood entourage that shadows him in a large van. The director makes several attempts to shake his minders, including a wild ride in a small kid's homemade hot rod. Sullivan chances to meet a washout would-be starlet (Veronica Lake) on her way home to The Stix. She becomes his companion on a second trip through the hobo world. All goes well until a twist of fate sees the innocent Sullivan sentenced to a chain gang, where his plea that he's really a big shot director falls on deaf ears. The people depending on him back in Tinseltown think he's dead!
Preston Sturges at his best is nothing short of amazing. His sparkling dialogue is some of the most refreshing to be found in movies of any era. Joel McCrea is as brilliant here as he is in The Palm Beach Story, which is perhaps the plain funniest of the Sturges bunch. Yet he's only the top-liner in an ensemble that can boast twenty delightful, memorable parts. Billed only as 'The girl', Veronica Lake gets mileage out of corny laughs, such as sneeze-talking with a snoot-full, or discovering herself infested with fleas. The secondary parts are nigh perfect. Sullivan's chauffeur (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 was Charles Lindbergh, and 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 could be tough on the best of directors. He loved Sturges but deplored his reliance on low slapstick comedy. Reconciling the obviously cultured filmmaker with his carefree, lowbrow tastes has been a theme of critics ever since. The film's biggest laughs are often its corniest physical gags, such as the cook (Charles Moore) crashing around in the careering bus, or a photo that changes expression every time Sullivan looks at it. Sturges has a thorough understanding of film comedy, from silent shenanigans to fast-talking screwball dialogue. His dream project Mad Wednesday was born out of a desire to work with silent comedian Harold Lloyd. Sturges' satire has a smile, and his irony has not a hint of cynicism. Of all his pictures Sullivan's Travels is perhaps the most sentimental. What other film ends with its hero sighing, "Gee Whiz!" yet is not the slightest bit dated?
It's interesting that some people think that Sturges' Sullivan is far too naïve to be a Hollywood film director. Well, Sturges himself later decided that it would be a great idea to go into business with Howard Hughes, as they saw things eye to eye and he was promised no interference and total support. Sullivan would never have been so foolish.
Sullivan's Travels is far more sophisticated than it lets on. Sturges' first scene makes a distinction between highbrow socially conscious 'cinema' and common entertainment 'for the masses.' Then he rolls both kinds of movie into one. In this hilariously apt film-within-a-film prologue, two swarthy thugs called Capital and Labor are locked in battle atop a freight train. They sink without a trace into inky depths, like Dracula and the Wolf Man. Yet later on Sturges creates his own extended montage revisiting images of derelict poverty not seen since the early 1930s. The show has the whole spectrum, from the sultan-like digs of a Hollywood swell like Sullivan, to a realistic look at conditions at the lowest rung of society. Can a swanky overpaid filmmaker wallow in a social conscience without being a hypocrite? Sullivan feels humiliated putting his name on shows like Hey Hey in the Hayloft, yet finds himself captivated by something as non-intellectual as a Disney cartoon about Pluto the Dog. Sturges' final message is an emphatic endorsement of mindless comedies. Even people with 'grim death gargling in their faces' sometimes need a good laugh. By the end of the show, we're with him all the way.
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of Sullivan's Travels is the expected fine restoration of this bona fide comedy for the ages. A few hairline scratches appear near the ends of reels, but film texture, detail and contrast are excellent. The HD transfer is said to be new; the mono sound is uncompressed.
The extras add some nice items to Criterion's old DVD, from 2001. An audio commentary gathers several young filmmakers to laud Sturges' achievements. Also repeating is an interview with Sturges' widow, a vintage interview with Sturges himself, audio recordings of Sturges singing and reciting poetry. The kicker is the PBS American Masters docu The Rise and Fall of Preston Sturges, a superior 76-minute show that explains Sturges' high throne in American movies.
New to this release is a video essay by David Cairns, with 'guest star' Bill Forsythe of Local Hero fame. It is ambitious and thorough, a filmmaker's piece. Its first couple of shots are an animated title for the fictitious Sullivan film Ants in Your Plants of 1939. The folding insert has similar faux-posters for Sullivan movies, and bears liner notes by Stuart Klawans.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sullivan's Travels Blu-ray
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