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Sullivan's Travels (Universal 100th Anniversary)

Universal // Unrated // March 6, 2012
List Price: $14.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted March 30, 2012 | E-mail the Author
Times are tough. People are living in the streets, dying every day. It's a hard world out there, and John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) wants to put it on the big screen. "Stark realism!" he says. "How about a nice musical?" counters a studio executive, but Sullivan won't have it -- he's got to adapt O Brother, Where Art Thou? into a heart-wrenching document of the suffering of humanity. The only thing stopping him is his nagging fear (planted by the reluctant executives) is that he himself hasn't suffered enough, so he quits shaving, dresses himself in some raggedy clothes, throws ten cents in his pocket, and tries to join the less fortunate.

After ditching the enormous bus the execs and several of his handlers are traveling in that completely spoils the illusion, and escaping an offer of board for what turns out to be more than work, Sullivan meets The Girl (Veronica Lake), an anonymous former aspiring actress who's on her way home when she encounters Sullivan in a diner. After watching him struggle with a way to spend his ten cents, she buys him ham and eggs. McCrea and Lake create instant sparks together delivering director/writer Preston Sturges' biting dialogue, both comedic and romantic, and Lake (in one of her first major roles) clearly already has that special charismatic quality of a movie star.

Following the ham and eggs, Sullivan offers to repay the favor with a ride somewhere in "his friend's" car, but lack of an ID or a note about the car's whereabouts lands the two briefly in jail and ultimately pulls the curtain back on Sullivan's disguise. Amused by his idea, The Girl insists on tagging along during his follow-up attempts, during which the pair encounter a number of faint hardships only to retreat, quickly, to the luxury of Sullivan's fortune. On a recent re-viewing of My Man Godfrey, despite the film's lighthearted nature, I did feel there was something to be said about the way the film allows Godfrey to be a hero despite the freedom to leave his experiment in poverty for his wealth at any time. Travels almost feels like a response to something like Godfrey, a film where said wealth keeps revealing the gag and the two subjects, despite their good intentions, can't quite commit to a life where your shoes will be stolen or you can't afford a donut for breakfast.

If Sturges feels the same as Sullivan, Sullivan's Travels lets Sturges have his cake and eat it too, with a final 20 minutes that turns the tables on Sullivan when a string of coincidences and misunderstandings lands him with a hard labor sentence, depicting a little genuine desperation, poverty, and abuse. What happens after that is cleverly worked out to play to any audience. Sullivan learns something about hardship and whether the public wants to see their true lives reflected on screen, and at the same time, the ending can also be read as a sharp criticism of the lessons that Sullivan learns when viewed from a different lens. A Hollywood happy ending, or a comment on the convenient compartmentalizing of pain and suffering for the benefit of rich white guys in Hollywood movies?* Hmm...

Previously, Sullivan's Travels was included in the studio's Preston Sturges box set, but this marks Universal's first stand-alone DVD of the film, following their licensing of the film to Criterion. As with all of Universal's 100th Anniversary releases, this features a beautiful glossy foil slipcover with a flap that opens to reveal the original theatrical poster, some facts about the film and the studio's activities the year the film was released, and places it along a timeline of other studio releases (although the packaging for this one makes no mention of the fact that this is one of the pictures Universal inherited from Paramount). Underneath the slip is a similar but not identical artwork minus the anniversary banners, and inside the case is a little leaflet with a code to enter and try and win a million dollars.

The Video and Audio
Of the three Universal 100 discs I've reviewed, Sullivan's Travels is the one where I don't have the Criterion edition to compare. However, this 1.33:1 full-frame transfer looks pretty nice, with strong contrast, reasonable fine detail, and some visible grain (although, perhaps not as much as should be visible -- it looks a little thin). A handful of flecks and nicks worth of print damage are visible here, and maybe a touch of black crush or posterization in the darkest areas of the frame, but nothing intrusive. All things considered, I imagine this transfer is on par with My Man Godfrey, which looked pretty good taken on its own, but had some 21st century tweaks that the Criterion didn't have. Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is slightly cleaner and clearer than the track for Godfrey, displaying crisper dialogue, and like Godfrey, Sullivan's Travels is also a film where dialogue is pretty much the only thing that matters. Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0, English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and French and Spanish subtitles are also included.

The Extras
Sullivan's Travels is also the Criterion release with the most extensive selection of extras and does not appear to have slipped into the public domain, which will help to justify the additional expense of their disc, should one want more than just the film. Readers who have read my reviews of Charade and My Man Godfrey can probably already guess, but Universal's edition only offers the same two brief and mediocre centennial featurettes "100 Years of Universal: The Carl Laemmle Era" (8:43) and "100 Years of Universal: The Lew Wasserman Era" (8:51).

An original theatrical trailer is also included.

This edition of Sullivan's Travels looks and sounds fine but skimps on the additional material. If you want that, go with the Criterion; if not, this is recommended.

{mild spoiler) *Sullivan's way of getting out of the prison is funny, but it's even funnier to think that it's sort of true: maybe the commercial-minded John Sullivan "murdered" the self-righteous one.

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