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The ability to make people laugh, make them forget about their troubles for a couple of minutes is a rare gift that should be celebrated. That was legendary writer/director Preston Sturges' point in bringing the story of a comedy director who decides to live the life of a hobo in order to relate to the poor as research for his attempt at a morbidly self-serious drama. The director, who was brought up in a life of privilege, is John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), and the drama he tries to get a personal handle on is called "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", which might sound familiar to Coen Brothers fans.
Pretty much any Hollywood satire you can think of, as well as many stories about comedians getting tired of their schtick and attempting to jump into depressingly serious drama, has at least a piece of Sullivan's Travels in it. Listen to the cynical way Sullivan's producers keep trying to inject sex into his somber drama about the struggles of the workingman and you'll recognize a lot of the satirical touches of a film like The Player. The way it utterly exploits the slapstick shenanigans that Sullivan angrily dismisses about his own past work contains more than an aura of the self-awareness of Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation. Stardust Memories, Woody Allen's cinematic therapy session about his disillusionment with his comedy work was basically a mix of 8 1/2 and Sullivan's Travels.
When it comes to the comedy of The Coens, Sturges' influence is very much apparent. Yes, their loose adaptation of Ulysses used the title of the movie within the movie, but the story is similar to another Coen film, a masterpiece called Barton Fink. Just like Sullivan, Fink selfishly uses his own misguided idealism in order to understand the struggles of the working class and fails miserably. Of course Barton Fink shows the more pessimistic flip side of the story, showing a protagonist becoming more and more lost inside his own ego. Sturges injects more hope into the final act of his story and finally allows Sullivan some well-earned clarity.
The shifting tones of Sturges' film, from broad slapstick comedy (The car chase at the beginning is still one of the best examples of slapstick) to heartfelt drama, wisecracking romantic comedy to an almost docurealistic study of the hobo life, might be jarring even to the modern audience. Yet if we just sit back and allow every element of Sturges' vision to wash over us, it's not hard to realize that we're have one of those rare great films that simply and honestly deals with the human condition.
Yes, poverty and misery exists, but so does love and laughter. Of course there's always a place in the world for drama that deals with misery, Sturges' case is not to say that all dramas are unnecessary. What he tries to get across is that if an artist is one of the handful of people who can provide the simple joys of laughter to an audience struggling with the conflict of everyday life, dismissing that gift as "Phooey", as Sullivan calls it, might be a bit counterproductive.
Sturges starts his story on the right track by immediately dismissing Sullivan's privileged and misguided attempt at understanding the poor. During perhaps the best scene in the film and one of the most famous monologues in any of Sturges' work, Sullivan's butler Burrows tells him that "The subject of poverty is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous". Of course this brilliant monologue is helped immensely by Sturges regular Robert Greig's deadpan delivery.
Even though he might be halfway sincere about his efforts, Sullivan can't help but run back to his rich lifestyle at the first sight of poverty and hunger. He meets a beautiful girl, known simply as "The Girl" (Veronica Lake), during one of his excursions into the land of the poor. Part of Sturges' attempts at exploiting the genre archetypes that Sullivan pooh-poohs, archetypes that show up in the movie where he's the protagonist no less, The Girl is the embodiment of the sex appeal Sullivan's producers constantly try to push on his films. Yet even when he finds a girl who likes him as his poor alter ego, he can't help but immediately confess to being a big time Hollywood director, while simultaneously dismissing his success of course. Only when, after extraordinary circumstances, he finds himself in real trouble, he realizes his true mission in life.
Sturges was the first screenwriter to break into Hollywood as a director, which was a huge deal at the time. His incredible writing skills are always on display during Sullivan's Travels, where almost one out of three lines are instantly quotable classics you probably heard even if you've never heard of the movie itself until now. My favorite amongst a bevy of gems is "If they knew what they liked, they wouldn't live in Pittsburgh".
Of course we physical media snubs expect nothing but the best transfers from Criterion, and even though in this case the results aren't extraordinary, this is the best Sullivan's Travels will look on home video by a long shot. The 1080p academy ratio transfer is as pristine and clean as possible, with some healthy amounts of grain to retain that classic black and white look. There are some scratches here and there and it looks like there was some digital noise reduction done during the transfer but this is an impressive presentation nevertheless.
I'm in love with Criterion's 1.0 mono audio presentations, which usually brings more depth and vibrancy to our sound systems than 2.0 mono. Sullivan's Travels is not an exception as the Linear PCM 1.0 track is as clear and full of life as it can be.
Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer: We might as well say that this Criterion Blu-ray comes with two features, since this excellent 1990 documentary covering Sturges' tumultuous yet exciting life is as good and entertaining as any filmmaker focused documentary I've seen.
Sandy Sturges: In this 14-minute interview from 2001, Sturges' widow talks about the man he knew. Very informative and candid stuff here.
Ants in Your Plants of 1941: This new feature is a visual essay put together by David Cairns and Bill Forsyth, where Forsyth mostly talks about Sullivan's Travels' influence on his own films.
Archival Audio: Three short clips of Sturges giving interviews about his work.
Audio Commentary by Noah Baumbach, Kenneth Bowser, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean: If you need proof on how much Sturges influenced comedians and filmmakers of later generations, look no further than this loving tribute of a commentary.
Apart from being a sharply written and executed comedy classic, Sullivan's Travels is a heartfelt masterpiece about our ability to laugh and make others laugh. Criterion deserves praise once again for bringing another great film with a great transfer and awesome extras to film buffs.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com